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?
When Sally Ride was completing her doctorate in physics at Stanford in 1977, she saw an ad in the university’s student newspaper encouraging men and — for the first time — women to apply for the NASA astronaut corps. It was literally an astronaut candidate cattle call for college science nerds. Ride applied, along with 8,000 other applicants. By 1978 she was a full-fledged astronaut candidate. In 1983, she flew aboard the space shuttle Challenger as a mission specialist for STS-7 at a mere 32 years of age — still an American record.
Not bad for a former junior tennis star turned English major turned physics post-grad who answered a newspaper ad. The recruitment method isn’t a one-off fluke, either. Great Britain recruited its first astronaut — chemist Helen Sharman — with a radio ad. It seems as though mass media is a not an ineffectual method for drumming up interest in a career in astronautics, somewhat notably for women.
Fittingly, Ride’s post-NASA career included the founding of an educational entity, Sally Ride Science, which encourages children — particularly young girls — to pursue education and careers in the sciences. Sally Ride Science Festivals encourage scientific inquiry by 5th- to 8th-grade girls, and they often earn notice by mass media publications.
That’s not just some apropos application of astronautic avocation; it’s a refreshing reciprocal representation of Geek Trivia.