Sally Ride’s Legacy: Encouraging Young Women to Embrace Science and Engineering

On June 18, 1983, 35 years ago, Sally Ride became the first American woman to launch into space, riding the Space Shuttle STS-7 flight with four other crew members.

Much has happened in the intervening years. During the span of three decades, the shuttles flew 135 times carrying hundreds of American and international astronauts into space before they were retired in 2011. The International Space Station began to fly in 1998 and has been continuously occupied since 2001, orbiting the Earth once every 90 minutes. More than 50 women have now flown into space, most of them Americans. One of these women, Dr. Peggy Whitson, became chief of the Astronaut Office and holds the American record for number of hours in space.

The Space Shuttle was an amazing flight vehicle: It launched like a rocket into Low Earth Orbit in only eight minutes, and landed softly like a glider after its mission. What is not well known is that the Space Shuttle was an equalizer and enabler, opening up space exploration to a wider population of people from planet Earth.

This inclusive approach began in 1972 when Congress and the president approved the Space Shuttle budget and contract. Spacesuits, seats and all crew equipment were initially designed for a larger range of sizes to fit all body types, and the waste management system was modified for females. Unlike earlier vehicles, the Space Shuttle could carry up to eight astronauts at a time. It had a design more similar to an airplane than a small capsule, with two decks, sleeping berths, large laboratories and a galley. It also provided privacy.

I graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Washington in 1971 and, by 1976, I was a young engineer working on the first Space Shuttle, Columbia, with Rockwell International at Edwards Air Force Base, in California. I helped to design and produce the thermal protection system – those heat resistant ceramic tiles – which allowed the shuttle to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere for up to 100 flights. I knew from my first day at Rockwell that this vehicle had been designed for both men and women. A NASA engineer at the Langley Research Center gave me a very early “heads up” in 1973 that they would eventually select women astronauts for the Space Shuttle. In the 1970s there were visionary men and women in NASA, government and in the general public, who saw a future for more women in science and engineering, and for flying into space. Women were not beating down the door to be included in the Space Shuttle program, we were being invited to be an integral part of a larger grand design for exploring space.

Although Sally was one of six women in the 1978 class, she preferred to be considered one of 35 new astronauts – and to be judged by merit, not gender. It was important to all the women that the bar be as high as it was for the men. From an operational and safety point of view, that was also equally important. In an emergency, there are no special allowances for gender or ethnicity: Everyone had to pull their own weight. In fact, it has been said that those first six women were not just qualified, they were more than qualified.

While Sally was honored to be picked as the first woman from her class to fly, she shied away from the limelight. She believed that she flew for all Americans, regardless of gender, but she also understood the expectations on her for being selected “first.” As she flew on STS-7, she paid tribute to those who made it possible for her to be there: to her family and teachers, to those who made and operated the Space Shuttle, to her crewmates, and to all of her astronaut classmates including Dr. Kathy Sullivan, Dr. Rhea Seddon, Dr. Anna Fisher, Dr. Shannon Lucid, and Dr. Judy Resnick (who lost her life on Challenger). With all of the attention, Sally was a gracious “first.” And the launch of STS-7 had a unique celebratory flair. Signs around Kennedy Space Center said “Fly Sally Fly,” and John Denver gave a special concert the night before the launch, not far from the launch pad.

The reality? More companies than ever are creating family-friendly work environments and competing for female talent. In fact, there is a higher demand from business, government and graduate schools in the U.S. for women engineers and scientists than can be met by the universities.

Both Sally and I had wonderful careers supported by both men and women. NASA was a great work environment and continues to be – the last two astronaut classes have been about 50 percent female.

I think that Sally would be proud of how far the nation has come with respect to women in space, but would also want us to focus on the future challenges for recruiting more women into science and engineering, and to reignite the passion for exploring space.

 

 

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