Brain Pickings

Remembering Sally Ride, the First American Woman in Space: What It’s Actually Like to Launch on the Space Shuttle

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Celebrating a pioneering astronaut, remarkable role model, and tireless advocate of science literacy.

On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride boarded the space shuttle Challenger and became the first American woman in space. Ride has just passed away after a fight with pancreatic cancer. President Barack Obama rightfully called her “a national hero and a powerful role model,” who inspired generations of young women.

But besides being a pioneering astronaut, Ride was also a tireless advocate for more science and math in schools and a prolific co-author of children’s science books, including the 1986 tome To Space and Back. Mere days before the book went to the printer, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch on national television, leaving millions of Americans overcome with grief and anxiety about space. Ride was conflicted about whether or not to publish the book in its current form, but in the end decided to go ahead, making it a testament to the importance of space-exploration and a way to answer young people’s questions about being an astronaut. She proceeded to deliver this eloquent, riveting account of what it’s actually like to launch into space aboard the space shuttle — a wonderful way to celebrate her legacy of bravery:

The long elevator ride up the launch tower takes us to a level near the nose of the space shuttle, 195 feet above the ground. Trying hard not to look down at the pad far below, we walk out onto an access arm and into the ‘white room’ The white room, a small white chamber at the end of the movable walkway, fits right next to the space shuttle’s hatch. the only other people on the launch pad — in fact, the only other people for miles — are the six technicians waiting for us in the white room. They help us put on our escape harnesses and launch helmets and help us climb through the hatch. Then they strap us into our seats.

Because the space shuttle is standing on its tail, we are lying on our backs as we face the nose. It’s awkward to twist around to look out the windows. The commander has a good view of the launch tower, and the pilot has a good view of the Atlantic Ocean, but no one else can see much outside.

Launch minus one hour. We check to make sure that we are strapped in properly, that oxygen will flow into our helmets, that our radio communication with Mission Control is working, and that our pencils and our books — the procedure manuals and checklists we’ll need during liftoff — are attached to something to keep them from shaking loose. Then we wait.

The technicians close the hatch and then head for safety three miles away. We’re all alone on the launch pad.

Launch minus seven minutes. The walkway with the white room at the end slowly pulls away. Far below us the power units start whirring, sending a shudder through the shuttle. We close the visors on our helmets and begin to breathe from the oxygen supply. Then the space shuttle quivers again as its launch engines slowly move into position for blast-off.

Launch minus 10 seconds … 9 … 8 … 7 … The three launch engines light. The shuttle shakes and strains at the bolts holding it to the launch pad. The computers check the engines. It isn’t up to us anymore — the computers will decide whether we launch.

3 … 2 … 1 … The rockets light! The shuttle leaps off the launch pad in a cloud of steam and a trail of fire. Inside, the ride is rough and loud. Our heads are rattling around inside our helmets. We can barely hear the voices from Mission Control in our headsets above the thunder of the rockets and engines. For an instant I wonder if everything is working right. But there’s no more time to wonder, and no time to be scared.

In only a few seconds we zoom past the clouds. Two minutes later the rockets burn out, and with a brilliant whitish-orange flash, they fall away from the shuttle as it streaks on toward space. Suddenly the ride becomes very, very smooth and quiet. The shuttle is still attached to the big tank, and the launch engines are pushing us out of Earth’s atmosphere. The sky is black. All we can see of the trail of fire behind us is a faint, pulsating glow through the top window.

The atmosphere thins gradually as we travel farther from Earth. At fifty miles up, we’re above most of the air, and we’re officially ‘in space.’

The book also features this fascinating anatomy of the interior of the space shuttle by artist Mike Eagle:

To send Sally off, here’s the most exquisite cover of “Blue Moon” you’ll ever hear — thanks, Radiolab:

GalleyCat

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