Of all the barriers to equality that women smashed in the 1960s and 1970s, one of the most exciting was seeing women leave the Earth and join the exploration of space. No one is better known to represent this achievement than Sally Ride, a NASA astronaut who became the first American woman in space in 1983. We spoke to Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, historian at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, about Ride’s career at NASA and the long reach of her legacy for women in science and beyond.
NASA in the 1960s and 1970s was not a welcoming environment for women. Even though pioneering Black women like Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson were instrumental in both getting men to the moon in the Apollo missions and demonstrating that women had valuable skills to share in spaceflight, the agency remained overwhelmingly white and male. The Astronaut Corps was even more so, being entirely staffed by white men up until 1978.
This was highlighted by Ruth Bates Harris, a Black woman who was appointed NASA’s Director of Equal Employment Opportunity in 1971 and who produced a highly critical report, calling the agency’s equal opportunity efforts “a sham.” For this forthright honesty, she was fired from NASA in 1973.
This firing was widely criticized in the media and left many members of the public outraged, to the extent that NASA faced a congressional investigation about the issue. Harris was eventually rehired into a different position, but the incident demonstrated that the agency needed to change with the times and become a more diverse environment if it wanted the continued support of the public.
That change began with the recruitment of a more diverse group of astronaut candidates, who would become the famous NASA Astronaut Group 8 announced in 1978. This group of 35 astronauts included Sally Ride along with five other women, as well as the first Black and Asian American astronauts.
Recruiting women and members of other minorities took some time, however, as many were skeptical that NASA was really interested in hiring from outside of its traditional pool. “It took some convincing for women to believe that NASA was actually going to select women,” Ross-Nazzal said. “Initially, there was some reticence over whether the agency was really serious about this.”
To encourage people from minorities to apply, NASA hired Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols to promote recruitment. Nichols recalled telling NASA at the time, as reported by Wired, “I am going to bring you so many qualified women and minority astronaut applicants for this position that if you don’t choose one… everybody in the newspapers across the country will know about it.”
Her mission was a success, and from the moment NASA Astronaut Group 8 was announced the public was fascinated by Ride and her female colleagues. They were the object of intense – and often sexist – media coverage. “They focused on the diets of these women, what they ate, how they exercised. They also focused on their weight,” Ross-Nazzal said. “You never saw that with the men.”
The coverage of the female astronauts also focused on their femininity, Ross-Nazzal said, such as their cooking skills, how well they kept their houses, and how their husbands felt about their careers. While their skills and expertise were acknowledged – these were women with PhDs and medical degrees – they still faced additional scrutiny related to their gender when compared to men. There was even an astronaut trainer who admitted to Ross-Nazzal that he was unsure if women would be up to the physical challenges of the job when the class began, but Ride and her colleagues met every challenge put in front of them.
Ride herself was somewhat uncomfortable in the spotlight. “She was never a huge promoter of herself,” Ross-Nazzal said. “She liked her privacy. That was one of the complaints of the media – that she was too prickly, that she was not open enough.” While other female astronauts like Anna Fisher embraced their roles as prominent public figures, Ride was more reserved and focused on her work.
This reservation extended to her private life. After her death, it was revealed that Ride had been in a long-term relationship with tennis player Tam O’Shaughnessy, making Ride the first known lesbian astronaut. She never spoke about her sexuality publicly, which was understandable in a culture in which being outed as LGBT would be a career-ender for most people. Her sister, Bear Ride, said at the time that Sally never hid her relationship from her family but she chose not to speak about her sexuality because she valued her privacy.
This private character didn’t dim the public’s appreciation of Ride and excitement for when she took her first trip to space, however. On June 18, 1983, Ride flew aboard the STS-7 Space Shuttle mission, becoming the first American woman in space. Crowds flocked to Kennedy Space Center to see her and the other astronauts off, with many wearing t-shirts emblazoned with “Ride, Sally Ride” from the song Mustang Sally.
“There was a lot of interest in that mission because it was a first, and it represented so much to many American women,” Ross-Nazzal said. “It was really a big deal for American women to see this hero — someone who had made it.”
The STS-7 mission deployed two satellites, one for Canada and one for Indonesia. Ride and colleague John Fabian also operated the shuttle’s robotic arm to deploy and then recapture a Shuttle pallet satellite (SPAS-1) which carried scientific experiments.
The Space Shuttle landed six days after takeoff, but due to bad weather it had to land at Edwards Air Force Base instead of Kennedy, as had been planned. “So as you can imagine, there were a lot of people there who were very disappointed,” Ross-Nazzal said. “They wanted to see Sally!”
Ride’s second space mission came not long after, in 1984. The STS-41-G mission carried Ride along with a second female astronaut, Kathy Sullivan, who became the first American woman to go on a spacewalk.
Both of those missions used the Space Shuttle Challenger. Ride had been assigned to a third mission, but in 1986 that craft was destroyed after liftoff, killing seven crew members, in what is known as the Challenger disaster. Following this, Ride’s subsequent mission was canceled as the Space Shuttle program was halted to investigate the cause of the accident.
Ride did join a presidential commission to review the accident, called the Rogers Commission, and then later moved to NASA headquarters to work on a report on the future of space travel. She left NASA in 1987 to work in academia, but she continued working in space education and advocacy until her death in 2012.
A lasting legacy
Her legacy as the first American woman in space has been long and influential. As an astronaut, Ride was effectively the face of NASA – and people saw that, for the first time, the face of spaceflight could be a woman. “When people think of NASA, they think of astronauts,” Ross-Nazzal said. “So they are very prominent in America’s psyche when they think about the space agency.”
From the first moment they were introduced to the public, Ride and her five female colleagues in Astronaut Group 8 were figureheads and inspirations for women across the country. “For equal employment opportunity and women’s programs, they would have these six women who were selected [as astronauts] in ‘78 talk at these events,” Ross-Nazzal said. The six were seen as a symbol of how times were changing, and how, even if it was hard for women to reach high levels in certain jobs at the time, there was the start of equity in something as high-profile as the space program.
There are women at NASA currently who said they were inspired by Ride as well. Ellen Ochoa, former director of the Johnson Space Center and a former astronaut who became the first Hispanic woman in space, was working on her Ph.D. at Stanford where Ride had also completed her Ph.D. and thinking about becoming an astronaut. “She saw Sally in that position, and all the other women of the ‘78 class, and thought, ‘Maybe it’s not such a strange thing that I be an astronaut’,” Ross-Nazzal said.
Another former astronaut and current deputy administrator of NASA, Pam Melroy, was inspired by Ride as well. “[Melroy] said she always knew she wanted to be an astronaut, but when she saw Sally Ride in 1983 it really cemented that idea for her,” Ross-Nazzal said. “[Ride] had an influence on these women by planting that seed.”
She also gave inspiration to women in all walks of life, not just those in science jobs. Her going to space was a cultural shift in the perception of what women could do and be, according to Ross-Nazzal said: “It was a sign of the times that women had finally made it. There had been so few astronauts up until that time that this was a really big deal. Women were finally part of an elite group of space fliers… It had a tremendous impact on American culture.”
As for Ride herself, she was a private person who by necessity put herself into public view, and by doing so changed the history of American spaceflight. “I never went into physics or the astronaut corps to become a role model,” Ride told Harvard Business Review a few weeks before her death. “But after my first flight, it became clear to me that I was one.” Throughout her career, she became aware of how much influence she had over how a generation of women saw themselves and what they could become. As she put it, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”