Houston had a problem.
It was 1977, and moon landings had become commonplace. American enthusiasm, and public funding, were in danger of drying up. NASA needed to make space exciting again and longed for the days when the country stopped to count down for each mission.
Desperate, it looked to the future and realized it was stuck in the past.
America’s astronauts were square-jawed, white military men. That needed to change, as did NASA. So, they began advertising a new crew position, mission specialist. All civilians with medical or scientific backgrounds were encouraged to apply.
The campaign’s celebrity spokesperson — Nichelle Nichols, Lt. Uhura from “Star Trek” — made it clear NASA was trying to be inclusive.
Meredith Bagby’s “The New Guys” is the story of those who answered the call.
They were female, Black, Jewish, Asian, and closeted. They were doctors and engineers, and scientists. Now, they looked like America. And they changed what role models looked like, too.
“After a massive, year-long campaign, the NASA Selection Committee had been inundated with over eight thousand applications,” Bagby writes. “Ultimately, they invited 208 lucky souls to NASA’s Johnson Space Center.”
In telling their stories, Bagby wisely concentrates on a few.
There is Judy Resnik, a petite electrical engineer who tirelessly worked out and bulked up before she even applied. Like other female candidates, she faced sexism from the start.
“What do you say when you meet a guy, and he says, ‘You’re too cute to be an astronaut?’” reporter Tom Brokaw queried. “I just tell them I am an engineer,” she replied.
There is Carl McNair, who grew up in the segregated South, picked cotton as a child, and earned his Ph.D. in physics from M.I.T. He would soon buddy up with another Black candidate, Guion “Guy” Bluford, a former combat pilot and Ph.D. in aerospace engineering. In a world where even a hero like Chuck Yeager reportedly used racial slurs, they knew they would need each other’s support.
And there’s Sally Ride, a physics doctorate from Stanford and a tennis whiz who once played with Billie Jean King – but who kept part of her life very private. Although Ride was married to a man during her time at NASA, it was only by reading her obituary decades later that fans would learn she was in a committed relationship with a woman for 27 years.
Even after they were selected, the class that veteran astronauts nicknamed “The New Guys,” or “TNG” – or, adding an expletive, “TFNG” – still had to train hard. Much of it involved trying to replicate, on Earth, the weightlessness of space. One exercise involved flights, sans seatbelts, in a rapidly plunging plane dubbed “the Vomit Comet.”
It was brutal, but it was also bonding. And, weirdly, empowering.
“The group began to assimilate to the iconic image of the American astronaut,” Bagby notes. “They could not help trying on the familiar tropes – leather bomber jackets, aviator sunglasses and cocksure attitudes. They no longer walked. They strutted.”
Mostly, though, they worked. To be chosen for NASA’s next high-profile job, they had to prove that the newly launched shuttle, Challenger, was truly reusable by sending it back into space for a second mission.
Its crew would comprise five — including Ride, America’s first female astronaut. Unfortunately, the men running NASA didn’t seem to know the first thing about women. They made sure Ride’s flight bag for the week-long mission included a full makeup kit. Also, 100 tampons – just to be safe, the men explained.
Ride politely told them they had overestimated.
Even before the launch, media attention was enormous and intrusive. Reporters asked Ride if she would start a family after she got back. She refused to answer. When reporters asked the men if having a woman along would be “an inconvenience,” commander Robert Crippen spoke up immediately.
“Sally’s on this crew because she’s well qualified to be here,” he said.
On launch day, more than half a million people, including Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem, flooded the area around Cape Canaveral. “This sure is fun!” Ride exclaimed after takeoff. Then she concentrated on her job – operating a robotic arm to launch two satellites.
When the shuttle touched down in California a week later, Ride’s fame had only grown, and so had her determination to hold onto her dignity, no matter what NASA’s PR team wanted. Upon landing, she accepted an official’s bouquet but refused to pose with it. Asked to appear on a Bob Hope special, she firmly declined.
“I’m not going to do that,” she declared. “I don’t like the way he exploits women.”
Still, NASA had the headlines they wanted. Now they could spotlight the rest of their first-in-space candidates – the first Blacks, first Jew (Resnik), first Asian (Ellison Onizuka), and the first everyday American, Christa McAuliffe, a high-school teacher from New Hampshire.
But there was trouble, and tragedy, ahead. And there were warning signs by the time of Challenger’s 10th mission.
On the launch date, a blustery January in 1986, the temperature had fallen to an unseasonable 36 degrees. One contractor cautioned that it might be too cold for their equipment to function correctly. Another, noting ice on the launch pad, warned they couldn’t guarantee it was safe to fly. Yes, an impatient NASA countered, but that’s not the same as guaranteeing it was unsafe to fly.
At 11:38, the Challenger lifted off.
Seventy-three seconds later, it exploded.
There were no survivors.
In March, the crew compartment was finally recovered from the Atlantic Ocean, along with the remains of McAuliffe, McNair, Resnik, payload specialist Gregory Jarvis, commander Dick Scobee, and pilot Michael Smith. They were still wearing their flight suits. A preliminary investigation revealed they had probably been conscious for part of the descent. Trapped, too: To save time and money, NASA hadn’t included ejector seats.
There was an investigation, but privately President Reagan warned its head not to embarrass NASA. “Reagan’s Star Wars initiative relied on the shuttle,” Bagby writes. “He could not have the agency dragged through the mud.” And so, the panel’s conclusions were softened.
America needed its dead heroes. But did Americans need to know that their newly minted heroes’ deaths could have been prevented?
Ride, who had helped push the investigation, resigned from the astronaut corps.
NASA continued with diversity efforts. Recruits included Mae Jemison, the first female Black astronaut, and Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina. There would be new challenges, too, including a rendezvous with the Russian space station Mir.
There would also be a horrific reprise in 2003 when another shuttle, the Columbia, exploded during re-entry. Among those killed was Ilan Ramon, an Israeli pilot and the first in his nation to go into space. Investigations determined the cause was falling debris during liftoff.
NASA ended the shuttle program in 2011. The International Space Station, which it oversees with other nations, will be decommissioned in 2030. Although a trip to Mars has long been discussed, robots now crew most of NASA’s missions. Only cocky billionaires, it seems, have the money to blast themselves into space.
Still, more than 40 years after NASA called for volunteers, people across America continue to gaze up at the stars and dream about flying among them.
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