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When Sally Ride Saved the Space Program

Sally Ride

Sally Ride was not the first woman in space. That honor goes to Valentina Tereshkova, a Russian engineer who flew on Vostok 6 in 1963. Ride was the first American woman in space, and it was later learned that she was also the country’s first LGBTQ astronaut. She flew on two missions aboard the space shuttle Challenger in the 1980s, the ill-fated spacecraft that tragically exploded shortly after launch in January 1986. Despite her many achievements in space and science, though, it was her anonymous act as a whistleblower while serving on the Rogers Commission investigating the disaster that may remain her greatest yet least well-known contribution to the American space program.

The Apollo 11 mission that landed Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin on the moon while Michael Collins remained in lunar orbit is perhaps the greatest achievement in the history of humanity. Few now remember on the 50th anniversary of that flight, though, the disaster that nearly grounded the program before it even took flight. A fire broke out in the Apollo 1 capsule during a simulation in January 1967 that killed one of the original Mercury astronauts, Gus Grissom, along with Ed White, a veteran of the Gemini space program and the first American to walk in space, and rookie Roger Chaffee, a pilot who flew photographic spy missions over Cuba during the missile crisis. Their deaths stunned the nation and halted the Apollo program while a commission investigated. Only after a complete redesign of the capsule did the program resume the following year.

Sally Ride was a brilliant physicist with Bachelors degrees in English and physics, and a Masters and a PhD in physics from her studies at Stanford University. Her specific areas of study were astrophysics and free electron lasers. She joined the NASA space program as an astronaut in 1978 as part of the first class that accepted women. She served as the CapCom, or capsule communicator, for the first two space shuttle missions.

Ride rode twice into space, both time aboards the Challenger. The first time was aboard mission STS-7 in 1983, then again in 1984 on mission STS-41-G. These turned out to be her only space flights. She was scheduled to return to space in 1986 aboard the Challenger but her mission was cancelled after the shuttle exploded on live television. Due to her expertise, Ride was selected to take part in the Rogers Commission investigating the cause of the disaster. It was in this role that she perhaps prevented future loss of life and saved the entire manned space program.

There are striking similarities between the Apollo 1 and Challenger disasters. In both instance, the country had begun to question the huge expenditures required to fly into space and whether the program was worth the cost in dollars and human lives. Grissom and White were near celebrity-icons for their achievements at the time, and the Challenger mission was to carry Christa McAuliffe, an elementary school teacher from New Hampshire. Their loss struck at the heart of the country, and the public outcry and opportunistic politicians threatened the existence of their respective programs.

The investigation into Apollo 1 found shoddy workmanship, a cavalier and lackadaisical attitude, a condescending arrogance among some managers and workers, and a willingness to sacrifice safety in order to meet goals and deadlines. Inspection of the charred capsule found a wrench that had been left within the walls by a careless worker, for example. The investigation also found shoddy wiring which, combined with a cumbersome escape hatch and a pressurized atmosphere of pure oxygen in the capsule, was ruled as the most likely cause of the fire. The investigation of the Challenger explosion found similar flaws in design and attitude, and a culture also willing to cut corners.

Unlike Apollo 1, the Rogers Commission was able to quickly identify the exact cause of the explosion: special O-rings that sealed seams in the rocket itself tended to fail when subjected to low temperature. Rather than wait until the weather warmed, NASA pushed ahead with the launch with disastrous results. Perhaps most disturbing of all, leadership at NASA and O-ring contractor Morton Thiokol, Inc., were aware of the problem but ignored it.

And none of this might have been discovered by the Rogers Commission if it wasn’t for Ride. General Donald Kutnya, a fellow commission member, later revealed to Popular Mechanics what happened:

“One day Sally Ride and I were walking together. She was on my right side and was looking straight ahead. She opened up her notebook and with her left hand, still looking straight ahead, gave me a piece of paper. Didn’t say a single word. I look at the piece of paper. It’s a NASA document. It’s got two columns on it. The first column is temperature, the second column is resiliency of O-rings as a function of temperature. It shows that they get stiff when it gets cold. Sally and I were really good buddies. She figured she could trust me to give me that piece of paper and not implicate her or the people at NASA who gave it to her, because they could all get fired.”

Her whistleblower information was later revealed to the public in a televised demonstration by Richard Feynman, a fiery physicist who was loathed by many on the commission and in government for his unwillingness to yield from his withering criticism of NASA. Ride was perfectly content to let Feynman receive credit and the resulting adulation, while she remained in the background. It is no exaggeration to say her secret contributions to the commission probably saved manned space flights at the time.

Space flight is a dangerous proposition, and it takes a special breed of person willing to sit atop a rocket that could explode and take their lives. Yet Ride was willing to do so because the benefits outweighed the risks in her mind. When called to duty, she accepted the challenge and was willing to risk her career to save the program and future lives. Ride should be remembered as a brilliant physicist and daring explorer. She also deserves to be remembered as the loyal and loving partner of 27 years to Tam O’Shaughnessy, an academician at San Diego State University.

Ride passed away in 2012 at the age of 62. On this 50th anniversary of humans first stepping foot on the moon, she deserves to be remembered and honored for all of her achievements both personal and professional, but perhaps most significantly as the person who helped saved manned space flight for the United States.

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