When NASA first opened its doors back in 1958, an entire generation was inspired to dream of becoming an astronaut. Sally Ride could certainly relate to that, as she eventually earned a spot on the Challenger space shuttle in 1983. However, she was taken aback by how little her fellow engineers knew about women.
The 1950s were an intriguing period in American history, as the country faced the USSR in a decades-long battle for scientific supremacy. Indeed, the two superpowers kickstarted what was known as the Space Race in 1955. And two years later, the Soviets earned a significant victory over their rivals.
In October 1957 the USSR launched the very first artificial satellite into space. Sputnik 1 had beaten the Americans to the punch. In response to this and other Soviet accomplishments, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was formed the following year. From here, things really started to heat up.
The Soviets struck another important victory over America in April 1961. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to fly into space. NASA responded a month later, with Alan Shepard earning the distinction of being the first American to orbit the earth. The race didn’t end there, though.
As the 1960s progressed, both America and the USSR worked tirelessly to put a man on the moon. But following several challenges, NASA would, in 1969, strike a decisive blow in the Space Race. With a TV audience of around half a billion watching in awe, Apollo 11 landed on the moon.
The Soviets tried to follow suit, but eventually halted their efforts after a number of failed attempts. Instead, they concentrated their attention on orbital space stations, essentially bringing the race to an end in the 1970s. However, the USSR still had one particular achievement over their rivals at that point.
Back in 1963 Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to fly into space, orbiting the earth for close to three days. Yet America could’ve beaten their rivals in this regard, through a privately-funded program which had been launched three years earlier.
Known as the Women in Space Program, this project came about as a result of curiosity. A number of experts wondered if women would be better suited for space travel, due to their typically smaller sizes than men. With that in mind, pilot Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb was asked to undergo some tests.
When Cobb successfully passed the tests, more women were encouraged to follow her lead. After some time, 13 women in total had passed. Referred to as the Mercury 13, this group appeared ready for spaceflight, but NASA pulled the plug in 1962. One year later, Tereshkova wrote her name into history.
Despite this monumental disappointment, female astronauts would eventually get their chance at NASA. In 1978 Sally Ride was one of six ladies selected by the space agency, having applied to the space program following her studies at Stanford University.
After then working with the ground-support team for some years, Ride was finally selected to serve aboard the Challenger space shuttle in June 1983. Some two decades on from Tereshkova’s flight, she became the first American lady to go into space. Ahead of the mission though, Ride was presented with some bizarre questions from the NASA engineers.
“The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronauts would want makeup,” Ride recalled in an oral history interview with NASA Johnson Space Center in October 2002. “So they designed a makeup kit. A makeup kit brought to you by NASA engineers!”
“You can just imagine the discussions amongst the predominantly male engineers about what should go in a makeup kit,” Ride continued. “So they came to me, figuring that I could give them advice. It was about the last thing in the world that I wanted to be spending my time in training on. So I didn’t spend much time on it at all.”
Ride then recalled perhaps the most bizarre query of the lot. “I remember the engineers trying to decide how many tampons should fly on a one-week flight,” she said. “They asked, ‘Is 100 the right number?’ No. That would not be the right number. They said, ‘Well, we want to be safe.’ I said, ‘Well, you can cut that in half with no problem at all!’”
Despite all that, though, Ride could somewhat sympathize with her male colleagues. “There were probably some other, similar sorts of issues, just because they had never thought about what kind of personal equipment a female astronaut would take,” she said.
“They knew that a man might want a shaving kit, but they didn’t know what a woman would carry,” Ride added. “Most of these were male engineers, so this was totally new and different to them.”
During her week-long mission on the Challenger, Ride had a number of duties, including working with the shuttle’s robotic arm. After that, she went up into space again in October 1984. This second flight, aboard another Challenger shuttle, lasted nine days in total.
Following nine years at NASA, Ride eventually left in 1987, going back to Stanford University. There, she joined the institute’s Center for International Security and Arms Control, before moving to the University of California. From here, the former astronaut served as a physics professor.
Sadly, Ride passed away in July 2012 as a result of pancreatic cancer. A decade before her death, she hailed the normalcy of women astronauts, compared to in previous years. Reflecting on her thoughts starting out, Ride recalled thinking, “It’ll be a wonderful day when [the notion of a female astronaut] isn’t news,” as she told NASA Johnson Space Center. “And [now] we’ve reached that day!”
“Now people don’t notice there are women going up on Space Shuttle flights,” Ride added. “It’s happening all the time. I completely appreciated that this was really an important thing. On the other hand, it was just a little bit irritating that it was so important, because I thought it should be a very natural thing for women to be astronauts.”