A quarter-century ago today, on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride rocketed into space and became America's first female astronaut. In the days leading up to the 25th anniversary of her historic launch, Florida Today's Todd Halvorson spoke with Ride. Here?s what she had to say, in her own words:
Question: Take us back 25 years ago. What do you remember about the hoopla around the launch? Set the scene for us. It must have been pretty crazy.
Answer: It was pretty crazy. But the really good thing is that I was insulated from a lot of it. So I was aware of all the hoopla in the media. But I was much less aware than you might expect just because you know how those days and weeks before launch are. There is so much new information to cram in. People are coming at you every day with this little piece of information they forgot to tell you. And this procedure has changed just a little bit. And have you practiced this recently. Just a barrage was enough to keep me from being able to do things like watch the news or pay much attention to the newspapers, and frankly, the fact that I was in training and within NASA?s kind of bubble made it easier for me to focus on the flight and it made it relatively easy for me to ignore what was going on at least pre-launch. You know all that disappeared post-launch, but prelaunch I was really able to focus a lot on the mission itself and you know what we were supposed to be doing in the mission. I hear lots of stories about who was coming to the launch and the coverage it was getting in the newspapers but as I said, I was mercifully protected from most of that.
Q: Tell me about the crew assignment. Who rung you up on the phone? How did that all come down?
A: I got a call early in the morning. It was well before eight in the morning in the office at JSC. I want to say it was around 7 or 7:30 in the morning because I tended to get into the office early. A lot of the astronauts get into the office early. I think we had a crew meeting every Monday morning at eight or 8:30. So I was in early and I got a call to go over to Mr. Abbey?s office. (George Abbey, the legendary and mysterious director of flight crew operations at the time). And you know, that was generally taken as either a very good or a very bad sign. And there had been a lot of rumors swirling about the fact that they were about to name another crew or two. And so I went over, walked over to Building One and went to the eighth floor to Mr. Abbey?s office and I was the only one in the meeting. His assistant had me go right in, and it was me and George Abbey, and he said something like, you know, in typical George Abbey fashion, ?So do you still want to fly?? And I said, ?Um, Yes I certainly do. And he said, well, um, then we?re going to assign you to STS-7. And at that point, Crip (veteran astronaut Robert Crippen) was the only other person who had been assigned to the crew and knew what the crew complement was going to be. So George told me, talked to me for a few minutes, and then took me up to the ninth floor to meet with (Johnson Space Center Director) Chris Craft. And it was just three of us. And Chris Kraft, you know, talked to me just a little bit. It was kind of like, ?Are you sure you want to do this? We?re thrilled to have to on the crew, but we just want to make sure that you know what you?re getting in to.?? And at that point, of course, all I cared about was getting a chance to fly. So I said ?Yes-Yes-Yes.? And then I went back down with George to his office and he called the rest of the crew over. You know, put in the calls and told John Fabian to come on over and Rick Hauck to come on over and at that stage we were going to be a crew of four. So Crip came over and the rest of the crew was told, and we were told also that we couldn?t say anything to anybody upon pain of being ex-communicated from the crew until the press release was put out later that morning. And so John Fabian and I went over to the cafeteria ? you know, by now it?s like 9:30 in the morning, 10 in the morning. The only people in the cafeteria and we ordered a piece of peach pie, I think. We knew we couldn?t go see anybody else because we would have let the cat out of the bag.
Q: Was it clear that Abbey assigned you that he was assigning you to be the first American woman to fly in space.
A: Yes. That was very clear. Because the crews up until then, the crews up through STS-6 has been assigned, and so when I was assigned to STS-7, I knew what that meant. And you know, George is a man of few words so he didn?t tell me what it meant but up in Dr. Craft?s office, Dr. Craft was saying this is an important assignment.
Q: Was there a competition between the first six women to get that first slot.
A. Ah, no. There really wasn?t. I think that we really didn?t know how to compete, and that was a little bit of the mystery that was the astronaut office and crew assignments. It was very difficult to know what to do to compete for a crew slot. So I think pretty much everybody?s philosophy was just do as good a job as you can on the assignments you are given and try to make sure that the community around JSC knows that you are working hard and that you are doing a good job. So it was very, very difficult to compete on an individual basis.
Q: Well, crew selection at that time, and maybe still, was sort of black magic, wasn?t it?
A: Yep. Totally mysterious. Completely mysterious.
Q: Why do you think you got the call?
A: First of all, I think it could have been any one of the six of us that was named to that flight. As you know, all six of us went on to fly, and in fact, all of the TFNGers ? all 35 astronauts in our class ? went on to fly. So there was no real question of being more or less competent than anyone else. But I think it was a combination of some of the assignments that I had had ?- you know, I had been a Capcom on STS-2 and STS-3. So I knew quite a bit about communicating with the crew, communicating with the ground, ho Mission Control worked, how a crew operated. You know I was one of the support crew for STS-2 and STS-3.
Q: You were the first woman Capcom, weren?t you?
A: I was.
Q: And Capcom has always seemed to me to be a fast track to flight.
A: Capcom is one of the really good assignments, and you know, it?s an indication that people think you are doing well if you are assigned to be a Capcom. And it?s partly because it really does give you that experience and kind of that inside look at Mission Control and that inside look at how another crew ? the crew in orbit ? works and communicates with each other.
Q: Did you also have assignments prior to the STS-7 crew announcement with the robot arm?
A: Yeah I did. I was actually, initially, early on assigned ? relatively early in my astronaut training?one of my first assignments was working on the robot arm, and I think that Bill Lenoir was the lead astronaut working on the robot arm at the time, and when he was assigned to a flight, I took over as the lead from the astronaut office working on the robot arm. I did a lot of the work on developing the simulations and the test matrix for the arm and was involved a lot in the early ground testing of the arm.
Q: And STS-7 was the debut of the robot arm wasn?t it.
A: It wasn?t the debut of the robot arm. It was the first time the arm was used to release a payload and the first time it was used to grab a payload. It made its debut on STS-2. It was unberthed, kind of put through its paces a little bit just to make sure it operated as people thought it was going to; and on STS-3 they did the same thing but they grabbed onto a payload in the payload bay and I think they unberthed a payload and then rebirthed one.
Q: Did your experience in the development of the robot arm have anything to do with your selection to that crew?
A: I think it might have. It?s a little bit hard to say?.I think that it probably did have some influence over the selection. I?d done a lot of work on the procedures development for the arm ? you know, helped developed the procedures that STS-2 and STS-3 used. And when I was support crew for STS-2 and STS-3, I was kind of the support crew person in charge of making sure that the crew got trained on the arm and that the procedures were procedures they were comfortable with.
Q: At the time of STS-7, when you were stepping onto the vehicle, how dangerous did you think the shuttle was?
?A: I think I had a pretty realistic view of the risk associated with it. You know, this was the early days of the space shuttle program, and if you remember there were a lot of problems, before STS-1 and even after STS-1, a lot of problems with engine tests, a lot of problems with tile. And people were actually quite well of the risks. And if you are not very well aware of it before you go into crew training, you really are once you?ve been in the simulator and have gone through ascent runs because a lot of that is abort training. So you know, you have to go through the procedures for an RTLS. You have to go through the procedures for a TAL. You have to go through the procedures for an AOA. You have to go through the procedures for contingency abort, which everybody appreciates that no one is going to survive. And you do that all the time. I mean, it?s not just you do it once a month. You?re practicing those aborts in the simulator many, many times a week the last few months before flight.
Q: Do you have a different view of the danger of the shuttle now?
A: You know I think I?ve got probably a more refined view of the danger of the shuttle. I didn?t, for example, think a lot about the solid rockets. I think that I considered the main engines the riskiest part of the shuttle, and I think that most people would share that view actually. But I think we?ve learned a lot about the solid rockets and I think we?ve learned a lot about what foam can do. We had a pretty good sense of how important the tile was and how tile damage was not something that was taken lightly at all back in those days. But now that we?ve seen the effects that those problems with the solid rockets and problems with the foam can have. I think it just makes it more concrete.
Q: Could you have imagined back at the time of STS-7 that your future would hold serving on two shuttle accident boards.
A: No. That?s something that I would not have predicted. And of course would not have wanted.
Q: Would you serve on another.
A: I think two is enough for anybody, and hopefully there won?t be another one.
Q: What is with all of the songs in popular culture that have Ride Sally Ride in the lyrics, and these songs came even before your time ? Wilson Pickett in 1966 with Mustang Sally and then Lou Reed in 1974 with Ride Sally Ride. Were these people prophetic?
A: You know, undoubtedly they were prophetic, and I certainly wish they hadn?t been because I was running from Mustang Sally since high school. Actually, since middle school, I think. That one has been following me through my entire life it seems.
Q: Did they play that as a wake-up song during STS-7?
A: Gratefully they did not.
Q: And then you actually did become part of the lyrics of Billy Joel?s We Didn?t Start The Fire.
A: I did. Yes. Imagine my surprise when I heard that for the first time.
Q: Tell me about it.
A: I was just in the car listening to the car, I think, the first time I heard the song, and then heard my name in it.
Q: The 25th anniversary of your flight has been noted in various venues. Barbara Mikulski noted the 50th anniversary of NASA and the 25th anniversary of Sally Ride?s voyage in her pledge to get NASA?s budget increased and fight for a $1 billion repayment in Columbia costs, and the International Women?s Air & Space Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, has an exhibit that pays tribute to the 25th anniversary of the flight and I was joust wondering what you think about that it?s being noted in places like that.
A: I think it?s great?It means a lot to me that my participation in that flight has meant so much to so many people. And I hadn?t appreciated how much it did really mean to people, how much it touched particularly women, until after my flight. The first few months after my flight I was really struck by the way that women of all ages ? from college students to 60-year-old, 70-year-old, 80-year-old women ? reacted to me. It was just something that they never thought they would see. And it made quite an impression on me.
Q: You were in that NASA bubble and insulated in the time leading up to flight, and then you were out in public of course after you landed with the PR tours. Where were some of the places you went ? were you at the White House? ? and were you surprised at the reaction people had?
A: I was very surprised at the reaction people had. Our crew had a lot of opportunities, and I had a lot of fabulous opportunities. We did go to the White House. In fact, our crew was at the White House a couple of different times ? once before the flight and once after the flight. We went to a State Dinner. I sat next to Ronald Reagan during a state dinner. (STS-7 pilot) Rick Hauck and I went on a whirlwind tour of Europe. We were in Europe for a little bit over a week, and we met the British ambassador and met the King of Norway and met the Queen of The Netherlands. So it was really quite an amazing year after my flight particularly for a former graduate student in physics-tennis player who hadn?t really thought about the world beyond physics just a few years before.
Q: That just must have been absolutely something else.
A: It really was. And the transition from being inside this insulating bubble just before flight, then being in orbit ? which is quite far removed from people and from the media and from just kind of the day to day world for a week ? and then coming back down and almost being thrown to the wolves ? sent out on PR tours ? it was really quite a transition.
Q: Do you remember it as a pleasant one?
A: I remember a lot of it as very pleasant and, you know, just a set of unbelievable experiences and opportunities to met people that I?d never imagined being able to meet, and then also something that was very, very difficult for me because I?m happiest when I was in the simulator working with the crew or working with colleagues on a physics problem or playing on a tennis court ? not speaking to a group or being the center of attention at a reception or doing TV interviews. It was very, very different for me, and not the way I had envisioned my life.
Q: Did you have a sense back at the time of STS-7 that Sally Ride was just always going to be America?s first woman in space?
A: Actually I didn?t. I think it took me awhile. It took me a few years to appreciate that ? to appreciate that that recognition was going to stay with me.
Q: Karen Nyberg just made her first flight on STS-124 and it just so happens that Karen Nyberg became the 50th woman to fly in space ? 25 years after STS-7 ? and I just wondered what you thought of that milestone.
A: I just think that?s very cool. You know, I go around the country a lot. I speak to a lot of groups and kids growing up today ? women in college ? they take it for granted that women are astronauts, and I just love it. Having said that, they also don?t appreciate how many different women have gone into space. And I think the 50th is just a wonderful milestone. And when you think about it, not very many people have had the opportunity to be astronauts, and the fact that 50 of them have now been women is really quite remarkable.
Q: And it?s going to get to the point real soon where we?ll stop counting them.
A: Won?t that be nice? That?ll be a good day.
Published under license from FLORIDA TODAY. Copyright ? 2001 FLORIDA TODAY. No portion of this material may be reproduced in any way without the written consent of FLORIDA TODAY.
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Todd Halvoron is a veteran aerospace journalist based in Titusville, Florida who covered NASA and the U.S. space program for 27 years with Florida Today. His coverage for Florida Today also appeared in USA Today, Space.com and 80 other newspapers across the United States. Todd earned a bachelor's degree in English literature, journalism and fiction from the University of Cincinnati and also served as Florida Today's Kennedy Space Center Bureau Chief during his tenure at Florida Today. Halvorson has been an independent aerospace journalist since 2013.