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social sciences

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Ride, Sally (1951-2012)  
 
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Competition for the posts was intense, as some 8,000 people applied. Ride made the cut to be among the 208 finalists and, after intense scrutiny--including medical exams, evaluation by psychiatrists, and an interview with the NASA selection committee--earned one of the 35 slots. Five other women were also chosen.

Some of the members of the previously exclusively male community of astronauts did not initially welcome the inclusion of women. Sara Sanborn of the Toronto Globe and Mail reported that Apollo astronaut Alan Bean, one of the self-declared skeptics, revised his thinking after participating in the training of the new class of astronauts. "Females intuitively understand astronaut skills," he stated. "They perform the mental and physical skills as well as men do."

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Notwithstanding the affirmation in the second part of Bean's comment, the dismissive allusion to "intuition" as key to women's success underscored the obstacles faced by female astronauts. However, Ride, armed with knowledge and skill in addition to whatever intuition she might possess, was up to the challenge.

She became a member of the space shuttle program, working first--for two years--on the design and development of a remote manipulator arm for the vehicle for its first mission.

On the second and third missions Ride was named "capcom"--short for "capsule communicator," the person responsible for giving the instructions of the flight director to the astronauts. Being "capcom" was often a stepping stone to selection to a crew, and so it was with Ride, who was named a mission specialist on the flight of Challenger scheduled for 1983.

In the meanwhile, Ride had married fellow astronaut Steven Hawley in 1982 in a ceremony attended only by their immediate families. She chose Levi's and a rugby shirt as her bridal attire.

The couple would divorce in 1987.

Although Ride had stated to Sharon Begley of Newsweek, "I didn't become an astronaut to become a historic figure or a symbol of progress for women," she did, in fact, make history as the first American woman in space when she blasted off on the Challenger on June 18, 1983 to the cheers of a crowd that included feminist activists Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda and that was estimated to number some quarter million people in all.

Many of those on hand for the launch sported T-shirts or carried signs reading "Ride, Sally Ride."

In her role as a mission specialist, Ride participated in tasks including the use of the remote manipulator arm and launching satellites, as well as operating various systems on the spacecraft.

Although Ride valued her privacy, she immediately became a very public face of NASA and an ambassador for the space program, making appearances and speeches and giving numerous interviews. Escaping attention was impossible, wrote Okie: "She couldn't go to the grocery store without being asked for an autograph. She told me that the only time she felt she could be alone was when she was standing at a lectern, preparing to deliver a speech."

Ride made her second flight as a mission specialist aboard the Challenger in October 1984. The following year she was named to a third crew and was in training for the mission when the explosion of the Challenger on January 28, 1986 caused NASA to suspend flights, pending an investigation.

Ride was appointed to the Presidential Commission that conducted the inquiry into the disaster. As a member of the panel, Ride did not hesitate to ask tough questions, and, reported Denise Grady of the New York Times, she declared that "it was difficult not to be angered by the findings" that potential problems had not been taken as seriously as they should have been.

Primary among those was the susceptibility of the seals on the rocket boosters (called O-rings) to fail when the weather was cold, as was the case when the Challenger was launched.

An engineer named Roger Boisjoly testified that he had warned those in charge about the hazards of the O-rings. Others in the program distanced themselves from him for this breaking of ranks, but Ride, alone among the panelists, gave strong support, even hugging him after he testified. Boisjoly was touched by the expression of her confidence in him.

After her service on the commission, Ride was appointed Special Assistant to the Administrator at NASA Headquarters, in which capacity she headed a study team on strategic planning for the space program. Their report, issued in 1987, recommended exploration of Mars as an "ultimate objective" for NASA but suggested further study of the moon and the possible establishment of a lunar scientific base in the nearer term.

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