Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Books: "The Six" By Loren Grush On The First Women In Space

The Six: The Untold Story of America's First Women Astronauts

By Loren Grush

Scribner; hardcover: $32.50: available today, Tuesday, September 12th

Loren Grush is a reporter for Bloomberg News who specializes in reporting on space. The daughter of two NASA engineers, Grush grew up surrounded by astronauts and Space Shuttles. She was a senior science reporter for the technology news website The Verge and has been published in The New York Times, Popular Science, and Nautilus magazine.

In The Six, Grush's debut book, she focuses on the groundbreaking achievements of the first women astronauts - Sally Ride, Judy Resnik, Anna Fisher, Kathy Sullivan, Shannon Lucid, and Rhea Seddon. They helped build the tools that made the space program run, despite enduring claustrophobic, and sometimes sexist, media attention, undergoing rigorous survival training, and preparing for years to take multi-million dollar payloads into orbit.

NASA began sending astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and '70s, but the agency excluded women from the corps, arguing that only military test pilots, a group then made up exclusively of men, had the right stuff. Women were even steered away from jobs in science and deemed unqualified for space flight.

By 1978, NASA recognized its blunder and opened the application process to a wider array of hopefuls, regardless of race or gender. From a pool of 8,000 people, these six elite women were selected. Each of The Six would make their mark, with some of their stories well-known to the general public. Sally Ride had a history-making first space ride, and one of them, Judy Resnik, sacrificed her life when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded at 46,000 feet in 1986.

Grush tells this story in a captivating way that weaves together history, science, and the human spirit. The work currently going on with NASA's Artmeis project, which aims to put the first woman on the moon, is a testament to the groundbreaking achievements of these six remarkable women pioneers.

Loren Grush was part of a Zoom discussion with veteran journalist Lynn Sherr, known best for her work on ABC News' landmark show "20/20" and her coverage of the space program. Here is a sampling of their discussion:

Lynn Sherr: These were the first six American women to go into space. As someone who grew up with rockets all around you, what did you find about these six women to be the most annoying thing about the way they were treated?

Loren Grush: Well, I have to say I wasn't quite as impressed with the press that was around them at the time, with you as the biggest exception, Lynn. I think one of the things I talked about with the women is that they were pretty adamant they were treated pretty fairly at NASA. You know, sometimes there were hiccups along the way, but they were pretty happy with their colleagues and the men that they worked with. It was really the press and the questions that they were asked throughout their journey that were just laughable. There's an infamous question asked by the Time reporter at Sally Ride during her press conference asking her if she weeps in the simulator when things go wrong. By the way I had to FOIA NASA for that press conference (referring to the Freedom of Information Act) because it is deep in the archives, and so I was able to watch that press conference in full, and boy, there's some real great questions in there (she said sheepishly), that we would all cringe if we heard them asked during in a press conference today.

Lynn Sherr: Let's point out that was 1983 that Sally first flew. 1983, folks, is when the first American woman flew. Of course, the first Soviet woman, Valentina Tereshkova, 20 years earlier, but Loren you got to these women in a very real way. I knew them all reasonably well and you really portrayed them as they were and as they are. For our audience, why don't you run down the names and give a description of each one.

Loren Grush: I would love to. Of course, I feel like everyone knows Sally Ride, and I just want to reiterate, if you really want the complete story about Sally Ride, please read Lynn's book (Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space). Sally Ride, we know her as a tennis player, but one of the things I really love with her is she had a really dry sense of humor; as Lynn points out in her book, she's a great compartmentalizer. She didn't put up with any chauvinism or sexism, also she didn't like to be treated any differently, which reflects some of the ways that she approaches that in the book. 

Followed by her (note: Grush is going in order of how they flew) is Judy Resnik, who is one of my favorites of The Six. You know, she has a real tragic story...She was also one of the first Jewish astronauts to fly, but same with Sally Ride, she really did not like to bring attention to herself, did not like the press, did not like talking to them because they did bring up her divorce, and they wanted to talk about her family life, which she really did not want to get into, but she was also kind of known for yukking it up with the guys a little bit. I spoke with Mike Mullane, because if you haven't read his book, that's a fantastic and hilarious book the class of astronauts they were a part of, and he describes her personality, and she's just a really vibrant and funny person.

Following her is Kathy Sullivan, she's the first American woman to conduct a space walk outside of the shuttle, and Kathy's just so smart and amazing, so qualified. She's known for being the explorer, and so she knew early on that she wanted to be a part of the spacewalking, you know, do a space walk, so she kind of maneuvered her way into working with the Air Force and using their pressure suits, and that put her in the perfect position to be a space walker...

Four to fly is Anna Fisher; she's famously the first mother to fly. I was actually going to bring up, as the women flew, and America became more comfortable with women flying, the questions became less intrusive, but Anna still had to deal with a lot of opinions from women thinking that it was a terrible idea for her to go to space and leave her daughter, Kristin, behind. Also, what a great way for things to come full circle, Kristin Fisher is a great friend of mine who is reporting for CNN and reporting on space, too, so, as space babies, we all like to come full circle. There was a question that Anna got while she was in space asking how being astronaut makes her a better mom, you know, wild things, and you know, none of the men ever got those questions and all them have questions.

Followed by her is Rhea Seddon, and Rhea is fantastic. Rhea was the first to, well, okay, Anna Fisher was married to an astronaut, Bill Fisher, but he became an astronaut after he had been selected...Rhea also married a fellow astronaut, (Robert) Hoot Gibson. I spoke with Hoot for this book, he's a fantastic interview. I highly recommend anyone who can meet him to meet him, and they had the first astro-tot, which is the first child to be born of astronauts, so Anna was the first mother, but Rhea and Hoot had the first child while they were in the program together...Rhea and Anna are both medical doctors, and so they brought that expertise when they were flying. Rhea flew with an eco-cardiogram experiment that she got to use. Also, Rhea's flight is really interesting because she got to fly with the first politician to fly. Many of you know that Bill Nelson also flew on the Shuttle; he's the NASA Administrator now, but Jake Garn was on Rhea Seddon's flight, so that was a new initiative that NASA was working on at the time to make the Shuttle more accessible to the public or lawmakers, in this instance. (Garn was the first member of Congress to fly in space)...

Lynn Sherr: I wonder now that Bill Nelson runs NASA; when he flew, it was widely seen as a boondoggle because he was on the committee that was funding NASA basically, or voting to fund NASA, but the crew all liked him very much, and he acquitted himself extremely well. My question to you, Loren, is, you know the program so well, Bill Nelson is now the NASA administrator, as you mentioned, you think it's a good thing that he flew, you think it's helpful to him that he had that flight?

Loren Grush: I think it definitely gives you a certain perspective. I haven't been to space myself, so I cannot say, but there is the talk of the overview effect, you know, it's being in space versus training for space is just night and day difference from what I hear, and so I think it definitely gives you an idea of what all of this money and all of these politics are working towards, and so I definitely think it does give him an added perspective that we don't have, but also Bill loves to bring up his space flight whenever he does do his press conferences, which I find really funny.

And then I have to move on to Shannon Lucid, who, unfortunately, didn't get into all of her accomplishments in the book, but Shannon is probably one of the most accomplished in the group of The Six that I write about. I mean, she, well, the flight that I write about in the book, STS-51-G, she was flying with the first member of a Royal Family, Prince Sultan from Saudi Arabia, but Shannon would go on to fly on the MIR Space Station, and she would live there, and for a time, she would be the only woman to have the longest-duration space flight, and she held that title for a really long time...Also, Shannon's fantastic because Shannon is slightly older than the other women. She experienced quite a bit of sexism. Writing about her early history was extremely illuminating. While the other women had their issues growing up as well, they were younger, America was getting its act together a bit more when they were growing up, but Shannon, she had the damnedest time to get just a job in chemistry, and left and right, people refused to pay her, people told her she would never get a job because she was a woman, and she just kept fighting and fighting and fighting, and it eventually led her to NASA, and so I really enjoyed speaking with her and hearing about that history, and it's just a reminder for someone like me what women had to deal with back in just the '70s, not that long ago."

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