Last week, we learned that Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and still the youngest American astronaut ever, had passed away at the age of 61. With her passing, NASA, the United States, and space researchers and enthusiasts the world over paused to reflect not just on Ride’s contribution to science and gender equity, but to the role of women throughout the history of manned spaceflight.
Most casual observers don’t realize precisely how deep the roster of women astronauts goes. As of the date of this writing (Aug. 2, 2012), 57 women have flown in space. Women’s spaceflight started nearly 50 years ago with cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova’s mission aboard Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963, then passed through 46 Americans, 2 more Russians, 2 Japanese, 2 Canadians, a Briton, a Frenchwoman, an Iranian, a South Korean, and most recently taikonaut Liu Yang, who flew aboard China’s Shenzhou 9 on June 16 of this year (the anniversary of Tereshkova’s flight).
While 57 women astronauts is undoubtedly an impressive number, it represents barely more than 10 percent of the 556 people who have flown in space (499 of which have been men). Ride’s original flight on June 18, 1983 is still remarkable for its inauguration of women astronauts at NASA, yet almost 30 years later, women astronauts remain relatively uncommon. Maybe if NASA still employed the somewhat unexpected recruiting tactics it used to recruit Dr. Ride, there would be more women in the astronaut corps.
WHAT UNLIKELY METHOD DID NASA EMPLOY TO RECRUIT SALLY RIDE INTO THE ASTRONAUT CORPS?