Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Books: "The New Guys" On NASA's Barrier-Breaking Astronaut Class of 1978

The New Guys: The Historic Class of Astronauts That Broke Barriers and Changed the Face of Space Travel

By Meredith Bagby

William Morrow; hardcover, 528 pages; $32.50; available today, Tuesday, February 7th

Meredith Bagby is a nonfiction writer whose books include We Got Issues, Rational Exuberance, and an ongoing series, The Annual Report of the USA. She also is a film and TV producer, and she works with the actress Kyra Sedgwick under the shingle, Big Swing Productions. She was a political reporter and producer for CNN and a teaching fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics.

The New Guys is the never-before-told story of NASA's Astronaut Class of 1978, which broke barriers because, for the first time ever, the astronaut ranks were open to candidates beyond white male fighter pilots. This historic class featured the first American woman, the first African American, the first Jewish person, the first Asian, the first gay person, and the first mother.

Their military predecessors gave them the nickname "The New Guys," and they rode NASA's cutting-edge shuttle, through its triumphs and tragedies - the Challenger and Columbia - and never lost sight of their conviction that space is for everyone. They helped build a dream of a new American century in space that brings all of the human race along.

Bagby has exclusive deals with five members of the class, three of the first women astronauts - Kathy Sullivan, Anna Fisher, and Rhea Seddon - and the first African Americans in space - Guy Bluford and Fred Gregory. She has done more than one hundred interviews with the featured NASA class members, their family, friends, and former colleagues. 

The extraordinary four-decade-long history of the Space Shuttle runs in parallel to this story. In the 1960s, the Shuttle was conceived as an ambitious new vehicle that would launch like a rocket, haul like a truck, and land like a plane. It would be NASA's most ambitious technical achievement, and The New Guys pioneered the Shuttle program, which defined a generation of space travel.

This groundbreaking history offers a way to reflect on our own era through the lens of a critical juncture at NASA. A handful of pioneers fought against structural injustices large and small so that women and people of color could contribute their skills and expertise to the dream of space travel. That battle goes on to this day, so this story provides a historical starting point for discussion.

Bagby examines NASA oral histories of the class, congressional hearings, the Rogers commission and Columbia investigation reports, and the vast collection of written and audiovisual NASA histories available through the Johnson Space Center archives.

In this excerpt, Bagby writes about Judy Resnik's introduction to NASA, and the style of this book becomes apparent, as it is told in chronological entries, and the subjects are referred to by their first name in a conversational style: "Judy Resnik clickerd her way up Independence Avenue with the Washington Monument behind her and the Capitol building in her sights. A breeze swept over the Tidal Basin, edging cherry blossoms off their branches, creating a flurry of white and pink petals. It was spring and the air carried a cool dewiness that she associated with beginnings.

A spirited, twenty-eight-year-old electrical engineer with a newly minted PhD, Judy had secured a plum job studying lasers at the Xerox Corporation in El Segundo, California. She was scheduled to start work later that fall, but today she was thinking of tossing that very well-honed future away.

A few weeks earlier, Judy had heard a story on the radio: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was, for the first time ever, recruiting women and minorities to become astronauts in its new space shuttle program. Since the dawn of the agency, NASA had culled its astronauts exclusively from the ranks of white, male military pilots. During the Apollo era, the astronaut corps relaxed its requirements to include civilians, but there had never been a female or minority astronaut. Now NASA was creating a new role - mission specialist - for the shuttle. Larger than previous spacecraft, the shuttle was designed to carry seven passengers, leaving plenty of room for scientists, not just pilots, to journey to space. Citizens with strong backgrounds in scientific fields, including engineers and medical doctors, were encouraged to apply. The ad piqued Judy's interest, then slowly began to consume her thoughts.

Judy worked all angles to make herself an exceptional candidate. Standing five feet, four inches with dark wavy hair and a cherubic face, the Akron, Ohio, native had never been much of an athlete. Now she ran every day. She ate a low-carb, high-protein diet to shed extra pounds - lots of steaks and salads - and signed up for pilot lessons on the weekends. 'I'm sort of a competitive person,' Judy said. 'If I want something, I want it.'

Judy, with help from her ex-boyfriend Len Nahmi, found and read everything she could on NASA, including astronaut Michael Collins's autobiography, Carrying the Fire. Collins had flown the Apollo 11 command module Columbia around the moon in 1969 while his crewmates, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, made their first landing on the lunar surface. His book detailed his experiences at NASA in the Gemini program through his time on Apollo and provided insight on how NASA chose its astronauts. Who better to give Judy tips on her NASA application or the selection process?

As Judy passed the verdant National Mall, the government buildings, and the war monuments, she made her way toward her destination: the National Air and Space Museum. Gerald Ford, in one of the last acts of his short presidency, cut the red ribbon on the new museum a year earlier. Collins was now spending his days as the director of the museum, archiving his predecessors' and his own contributions to space exploration.

Here, a continuum of hangars housed the world's largest collection of aircraft and spacecraft. Exterior bays, surfaced with pink Tennessee marble, flanked a mighty all-glass atrium. Walking up the stairs, Judy came to a towering sculpture that welcomed visitors. Three stainless steel shafts ascended one hundred feet into the air and came together in a pointed tip, exploding in a triple gold-star cluster. 'Ad Astra,' Latin for 'to the stars,' symbolized man's conquest of space...

With the trajectory of aviation and space travel laid out in progression, it was easy to see that humans are historical creatures. One generation conceded its hard-earned knowledge to the next. Expedition, inquiry, and exploration ran through the human heart. Through wars and famine, the rise and fall of nations, the change of landscapes and cultures, even when our humanity escaped us, science marched forward. Judy wanted to join the procession of science, the journey to the stars. Ad Astra. If this museum extolled the accomplishments of mostly men, with the notable exception of Amelia Earhart, then she would serve as a representative for the other half of the planet.

Judy strolled past the exhibits, the throngs of tourists, and museum workers. She took an elevator up to the museum's offices. (Michael) Collins was out expecting her. She did not have an appointment, nor did she have any credentials for entry. She did, however, have a hand-drawn floor plan of the museum that she and Len had pieced together. Hopefully, that map would lead her to his office. She strode down the hallway, hoping a security guard would not spot her. The hum of office work - phones ringing, papers shuffling, and doors opening - floated through the air. Judy turned a corner and saw his office doorplate. Poking her head in, Judy noted a man with the same high forehead and thinning brown hair she had seen in pictures. Kind brown eyes looked up at her.

Can I help you?

Judy smiled. She did not mince words.

'Hi, Mike, how are you? My name's Judy Resnik, and I want to be an astronaut.'"

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