Loren Grush: Spaceflight and Sexism

(photo: Christopher White)

Loren Grush is a reporter for Bloomberg News specializing in all things space. Previously, she was a senior science reporter for the technology news website The Verge, and hosted the online show Space Craft. She has been published in the New York Times, Popular Science, and Nautilus magazine, and has appeared on several TV networks as an expert commentator. The Six: The Untold Story of America's First Women Astronauts will be published by Scribner on September 12, 2023.

What incited your fascination with space?

I feel like I was born with space in my blood. I grew up in the suburbs of Houston, outside of NASA's Johnson Space Center, the daughter of two engineers working on the Space Shuttle program. Ironically, growing up in a community surrounded by NASA engineers, I started to grow bored with space exploration. Plus, anything your parents do when you're a teenager is automatically uncool. It wasn't until I left Houston that I started to realize how special my upbringing was. When I told my friends and peers the stories of my early NASA life, their eyes would light up. That helped me to fall in love with space all over again.

What can we learn today from the outreach efforts to include women and minorities in the Space Shuttle program?

The selection committee made a concerted effort to spread the word far and wide about the 1978 astronaut selection to ensure that people who may not have heard about it or had not thought about being an astronaut would actually learn of NASA's intent to pick a more diverse workforce. How they went about advertising the program led to their success in finding the right astronauts. That's important to consider no matter what industry you're in.

You focus a lot on how the women astronauts wanted to be "just one of the guys." How come?

I found it interesting that the women didn't want to be highlighted for being different; I can certainly relate to that impulse when it comes to my own life. I do think we are transitioning to an era where women both want to be treated equally and also to not feel ashamed to celebrate what makes them unique. But even though we've come a long way, there are still times when the space industry can feel like a boys' club. When I first got into space reporting, there were times when I'd be one of two women at a space event. It took all my energy not to run out the door those first few times. What helped me feel more at ease was finding other women space reporters I could relate to, and I think looking back on the women who came first is always an inspiring and worthy way to help women feel included and more comfortable.

What surprised you about how the first women astronauts were treated?

I found myself increasingly disappointed with my media ancestors. The women were constantly being hounded for interviews and then asked extraordinarily dumb questions that were not asked of their male colleagues. Then the stories that would be written about them would have some fairly absurd angles.

Despite their annoyance at the media, implying there would be romance in space, a number of the Six did indeed have partners who were in NASA. Why do you think this was?

The women weren't exactly best friends; it was actually the men in their class that they'd hang out with the most. They would fly with male pilots in the backseat of NASA's T-38 jets to stay current on their flight hours, and they worked with the men frequently on their astronaut assignments. Plus, when you were assigned to a crew, that unit became something like a family. It doesn't surprise me that they all grew close.

Sally Ride said of spaceflight, "It never entered my mind that there were actual risks involved." Why do you think she had this perspective?

Unfortunately, I think that the risks of flying on the space shuttle were not emphasized during the early years of the program. NASA was coming off a big win with Apollo, and as the agency transitioned to the shuttle, it was keen on painting the vehicle as both reusable and routine--something that anyone could fly on. Sally certainly learned later the risks involved, but I do think that a rosy picture was painted before the Challenger accident.

What did the Challenger disaster, which resulted in the death of one of the Six, change for NASA?

The obvious changes included the introduction of technologies and features that upped redundancy and safety. It blew my mind a bit to learn that the early space shuttle astronauts didn't even wear pressure suits, which feels like the gold standard now, and that payload specialists and even politicians flew on the shuttle. Additionally, I feel like Challenger made NASA take a hard look at its workflow. Unfortunately, it was a lesson that had to be learned twice, as Columbia would indicate years later.

What should readers who pick up your book expect to enjoy?

Readers will get to go on a journey, one that takes them back in time to the 1980s, and even further back to the 1960s, where they'll learn of the first women who fought against an even more sexist society to be sent into space. Above all, readers will be transported into space themselves with the six women on their very first flights to orbit.

What was the best part about writing The Six?

Talking to the 1978 astronaut class, the "TFNGs." Every interview with them felt like being transported back to the late '70s and '80s. I wasn't interviewing subjects but hanging out with an incredibly smart group of friends who I felt I'd known all my life. Steve Hawley--Sally Ride's ex-husband and crewmate of Judy Resnik--was fantastic to interview. His memory is a steel trap. I also felt so privileged to talk to the astronauts' superiors, like George Abbey, as well as the Six's "mother hen," Carolyn Huntoon.

Based on your research, what do you think the future holds for women in spaceflight?

NASA is currently aiming to send humans back to the moon with its Artemis program, which has the stated purpose of putting the first woman and the first person of color on the surface of the moon. In fact, this April, the space agency assigned its first astronauts to the program for a mission called Artemis II, which will send a crew of four around the moon as a precursor to the first Artemis moon landing. Two of the Artemis II astronauts, Christina Koch and Victor Glover, will become the first woman and the first person of color to reach deep space, respectively. Still, there is a long way to go to reach parity. Of the more than 600 people to have flown to space, just over 10% have been women. And the statistics for women of color is pretty dismal.

Would you ever want to become an astronaut?

As much as I love space, working for NASA never felt like it was for me. I'm so grateful for what my parents gave me, but I wanted to forge my own life path that was unique to me. And as someone who has always loved piecing together stories and performing, telling the story of space feels like a great fit. Now if someone wanted to give me a ride to space so I could write about it, I definitely wouldn't say no. --Samantha Zaboski

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