Saturday, July 06, 2024

Book Review: Meet the first American spacewomen in THE SIX

Loren Grush

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

Scribner, 2023, 422pp.

 There’s a lot of history and intrigue surrounding the first American women to break the space barrier, and Grush’s book provides an outstanding exploration of it all. Grush deftly balances the astronaut’s personal lives and professional achievements, never losing sight of either., I learned more about Sally’s life in particular, both before and after her historic space flight and her nine years at NASA. While there are small errors like calling the T-38 trainer a “fighter,” or women in WWII flying "jets," they are few. Grush covers the astronauts’ selection, their often-surprised reaction to being picked, the sexism they encountered (not as bad as might have been expected from a fraternity made up mostly of fighter pilots, but still existed and had to face down, and encounters with a press corps that sometime asked idiotic questions. Grush follows each woman through her first spaceflight, with little-remembered highlights like surgeon Rhea Seddon “operating” with a bone saw to make the “flyswatter” to trip a switch on a recalcitrant satellite. The women prepared for space in Apollo-era suits that didn’t fit, in a buoyancy lab building with no private changing area, and with a gaggle of press and NASA handlers that swarmed around them like Texas mosquitos. One item I'd not read was the engineer who became so enamored of Judy Resnick that he ran out to chock the wheels of her T-38 after a trip. (That sounds humorous, but it got to the stalking level and official action was needed.) The women were actually aware that they were the pioneers, and the options for women coming after them depended on their performance. They drove themselves hard for perfection and volunteered for duties they thought would advance their progress toward flights.

Then came the Challenger accident, which killed one of the Six, Judy Resnick, and changed all their lives. Especially altered was Sally Ride’s, as she served on the Rogers Commission, helped bring the O-ring problem to light, and was, incredibly, “as a woman,” asked to pick the color for the cover of the final report. She went on to helm the Ride Report about NASA’s future and turn down requests to be NASA Administrator before leaving the agency for good.

As a space historian myself, I also appreciated Grush’s discussion at the end about the primary and secondary sources used in the book.

This is a first-rate book about a critical chapter in the history of space exploration.

Matt Bille is a historian and writer in Colorado Springs. His 2004 book The First Space Race chronicled the Sputnik-Explorer-Vanguard competition of the 1950s.

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