Interview by Gloria Steinem
This conversation was recorded in the summer of 1983, just months after Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space aboard the space shuttle Challenger on June 18, 1983.
We uncovered the recording in the Gloria Steinem Papers, which are part of the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College.
The Animated Transcript
I wish that there had been another woman on my flight. I wish that two of us had gone up together. I think it would have been a lot easier.
It’s tough being the first but you’ve done it with incredible grace. You also have the only job in the world that everybody understands.
My father was so grateful when I became an astronaut because he did not understand astrophysicist. He couldn’t relate to that at all, but astronaut was something he felt he understood.
But you could see people all over the world connecting with what you were doing.
Roughly half the people in the world would love to be astronauts, would give anything to trade places with you, and the other half just can’t understand why in the world you would do something that stupid.
If you don’t have 20-20 vision, can you become an astronaut candidate? I always thought that was a big disabling factor.
It used to be. Now as long as it’s correctable to 20-20, it’s okay. So you’d probably qualify. (laughter)
I didn’t have any dreams about being an astronaut at all and I don’t understand that because as soon as the opportunity was open to me, I jumped at it. I instantly realized that that was what I really wanted to do. I took all, the science classes I could all the way through junior high school and into high school. I went to a girls’s school that really didn’t have a strong science program at all while I was there. At the time it was a classic school for girls with a good tennis team and a good English teacher and essentially no math past eleventh grade and no physics and no chemistry.
I’m curious about the reception that you got inside NASA. What kind of thing happened to you?
Really the only bad moments in our training involved the press. The press was an added pressure on the flight for me and whereas NASA appeared to be very enlightened about flying women astronauts, the press didn’t appear to be. The things that they were concerned with were not the same things that I was concerned with.
For instance The bathroom facilities.
The bathroom facilities.
How much did you get asked that?
Just about every interview I got asked that. Everybody wanted to know about what kind of makeup I was taking up. They didn’t care about how well-prepared I was to operate the arm or deploy communications satellites.
Did NASA try to prepare you for the press and the pressure?
(laughs) Unfortunately, no, they don’t. In my case, they took a graduate student in physics who had spent her life in the basement of a physics department with oscilloscopes and suddenly put me in front of the press.
What do you suppose are the dumbest kinds of questions you’ve been asked to date?
Without a doubt, I think the worst question that I’ve gotten was whether I cried when we got malfunctions in the simulator. (laughter) no.
That surpassed even the one about whether you’re going to wear a bra or not. Did somebody really ask you that?
No. The press, I think, decided that that was a good question for someone to have asked me and for me to have answered but I never got that question.
They made you up quite a good response. (laughter) It was something about ‘in a state of weightlessness it doesn’t matter’ or something like that?
They made up the whole thing?
Yeah, I was never asked that question.
What about your feelings during the launch…was there any time that the enormity of what was going on came over you?
The moment of the launch, when the engines actually ignited and the solid rockets lit everyone one on the crew was for a few seconds just overcome what was about to happen to us but a year of training is a long time — a year of sitting in simulators and being told exactly what’s going to happen. You hear the sounds and you feel the vibrations. They prepare you very well and it worked. We were able to overcome being overcome and do the things that we were supposed to do.
Just watching there at the launch outdoors…there were people with tears streaming down their faces, people I never would have expected and yet they were all very moved by, I guess, the human audacity of it.
I think that to imagine, when you see the long trail of flame, and then to imagine that there are really people inside that — that’s really something. Inside, of course, you don’t see the long trail of flame and what you’re feeling is really more of an exhilaration.
Well, there are lots of people looking up there feeling proud not only of you up there but also on the ground. Thank you.
What do you think it might be like in 2001? What’s possible for us?
Well, 2001. is a long ways to… that’s quite a ways in the future to speculate on. But probably the next step after the space shuttle is going to be a space station. And I would foresee a space station as being not just something that is orbiting the earth and used for experimentation or servicing of satellites or whatever but would also be used as a launching platform to back to the Moon or to Mars. I think both of those are inevitable. I’m sure we’ll go back to the Moon and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before we send people to Mars.
Do you have any speculation about how long it might be perhaps before there are such things as peopled space colonies?
I’d guess that probably by the year 2000 there will be. I think that we’ll have a space station by the end of this decade.
On which it would be possible to live for long periods of time?
Outtakes: Sally Ride on Her Parents
“I know that my parents must have done something right when they were bringing us up because they never imposed any of their standards on us and never tried to steer us into one field or another although I think my father wanted me to be a tennis player and practice a little bit harder than I did. But my father teaches political science. And neither my sister now I had any interest in it. none in politics. That didn’t seem to bother him. He was perfectly willing to let us do what we wanted to do.”
“I wouldn’t even say that I’m spiritual. I honestly don’t think about religion at all. Quite a few people have asked me since I’ve come back whether I’ve found religion in space or whether I had any mystical experiences while I was up there. No.”
The Right Stuff
“What NASA is looking for, what astronauts are today, are basically hard-working people who have this great desire to be in space. And that’s…we’re all a little bit workaholics…we work long hours but what we’re doing is sitting in simulators or sitting over desks looking at engineering drawings. It’s not flying around in sleek little jet airplanes all day. It’s not going to parties and signing away exclusive rights and making your fortune. It’ s really working very hard toward something that you really want to do.”
“I buy one brand of printer paper that I cut in half and get 1,000 sheets out of that. Then it’s the old school way of animating: paper, pencil, color, photographing the frame, and compositing. I probably made 1,000 drawings. This whole film was created in my home studio. My bedroom.”
Questions Sally Faced
Below are some of the actual questions lobed at Sally Ride:
Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?
Do you cry when you’re under pressure?
Will you be a mother?
What do you do when you get your period in space?
That last question was asked by writer Margaret McMullan, who was working for Glamour when she interviewed Ride in 1983:
“That night at the payphone I was armed with the one question my editor most wanted me to ask Sally Ride. “I apologize, but I have to ask you a difficult question.” I thought I heard her sigh. “What do you do when you get your period in space?” “I’m hanging up now.” But she stayed on. I could hear her breathing. Alice Walker hung up on me because she said she had better things to do. I watched Deborah Harry’s beautiful, pale profile as she yelled at her publicist for making her talk to me, a peon. LaToya Jackson reached over my desk and turned off my tape recorder. Bernadette Peters just stopped talking. “No wait,” I said. This all happened in a matter of seconds – my question, her response, my reaction to her response. Just then, I began to hate my job…”
In 1977, Sally was wrapping up her PhD in physics at Stanford when a job notice in the newspaper caught her eye. The ad said NASA was looking for astronaut candidates. It was the first time NASA had looked outside the military for trainee candidates. Astronauts had typically been military pilots, making space exploration, by default, an all-male endeavour.
Of the 8,000 people who applied, 35 – including Sally and five other women – made the cut. Sally became an astronaut candidate in January 1978.
NASA recently announced that they were again opening applications for new astronaut candidates from December 14, 2015 until mid-February 2016, this time in preparation for the agency’s planned voyage to Mars.
Wanna be an astronaut? Apply here.
The Women Who Paved the Way
Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. As a girl, she kept a scrapbook filled with news clippings of successful women in traditionally male fields. Earhart completed her transatlantic solo flight in 1932, but disappeared over the Pacific in 1937 while attempting to fly around the world.
The Women of Mercury 13
In the early 1960s William Randolph Lovelace II, who had helped develop the physiological tests given to NASA astronauts, decided he wanted to find out how women would perform on the same tests. He chose a group of accomplished female pilots to undergo testing, and thirteen women passed. Though they were the same tests given to the male Mercury 7 astronauts, NASA refused to consider allowing the women into the astronaut training program.
While the U.S. wasn’t ready to consider sending women into space, the U.S.S.R. went ahead and did just that. Tereshkova was selected to join the female cosmonaut corps in 1962 and became the first woman in space on June 16, 1963. She was in space for about 3 days and orbited the Earth 48 times.
Danny Madden, Thomas Teraoka
sketch (vlad) (Jahzzar) / CC BY-SA 3.0
Part VI (Jahzzar) / CC BY-SA 3.0