RIP Sally Ride

Like many other schoolboys in the 1980s, transfixed by the awesome sight of the space shuttle lifting off from the Kennedy Space Center, by the legend of the moon landings, and by the culturally enforced vision of the astronaut as our era’s most intrepid pioneer, I had a thing for those that went into space. Needless to say, I wanted to be like the men, those dashing, crew-cut, sunglasses-wearing types, piloting jets and shuttles. But that didn’t mean that women astronauts couldn’t make me admire them, especially if their credentials for spaceflight included degrees in physics like Sally Ride‘s did. I was a physics nerd too–one inordinately proud of explaining to anyone that cared to listen what pions had to do with the relationship between a proton and a neutron–and found the idea of civilian scientists and not just military pilots heading into space incredibly inspiring. If I ever dreamed being an astronaut, it was as a Mission Specialist and not as a Pilot  Commander that I imagined myself; I didn’t think I would join the military. And I also dreamed about a career as an astrophysicist, so a physicist-astronaut seemed wonderfully cool.

When Ride’s selection for STS-7 was announced, I took notice.  It didn’t matter she was a woman. Physics just made everyone that studied it cool, and besides, she was an astronaut. What was not to like? I studied shuttle flights closely in those days, diligently making trips to the American Library in New Delhi to watch videotapes of reports on each mission; STS-7’s details–its satellite deployments, for instance–received a great deal of wide-eyed attention from me. (It helped that the mission was led by the dashing Bob Crippen.)  Later, I saw Ride on television handing interviewers with aplomb and grace. I do not remember if any of them asked those sexist questions that were so often directed at her but it is entirely possible that I might have heard and seen a few and not realized just how offensive that line of questioning was. I do remember Carl Sagan being paired up with her for a television interview, and on being asked if he was envious of astronauts like Ride, saying he didn’t consider ‘puttering around in low earth orbit to be space travel.’ In the neighboring television window, Ride just smiled, refusing to fall for the bait. She seemed graceful, smart, and tough, a winning combination at all times.

One thing I didn’t know about Sally Ride then was that she was a lesbian. I wonder what I would have thought then as a seventeen-year-old schoolboy, one relatively unsophisticated in his understanding of human sexuality and its diverse forms of expression. My guess is that while I might have had some puerile curiosity about her sexual orientation and would have jumped at the opportunity to crack a crude joke or two in juvenile company, I think that in the end, the combination of astrophysics and manned space flight would have trumped it all. It still does.

RIP Sally.

Labor Relations in Low Earth Orbit: The Skylab Strike

Three weeks ago,  the world celebrated the twenty-eighth anniversary of the end of the manned portion of the Skylab mission. Well, not really. Enthusiasts of manned space exploration certainly did; others had to be reminded. Students of the history of science can edify us about the scientific value of the three Skylab missions (meant to replace Apollo 18, 19, and 20). My interest here is to note the significance of Skylab for labor relations in space: the crew of the third Skylab mission, which lasted eighty-four days–Gerald Carr, William Pogue, and Edward Gibson–went on strike for a day during their stay before relenting and going back to work.

Their story remains a fascinating one, one illuminative of the dynamics between a rigid, controlling, science-regulating administration and a group of workers ostensibly selected for their discipline and the psychological wherewithal to resist the stresses of space. (By noting this incident, I do not mean to diminish the crew’s activities, and to reduce their twelve-week stint in space to this story.)

From the moment the crew went into orbit, their lives were a blur of experiment and regulation, tightly controlled by NASA at Houston. For every single second of their waking days the crew was prodded, poked, telemetered, scanned, and required to work through long, tedious check-lists of activities; every bodily function had to be recorded and regulated; this was, after all, a mission whose primary objectives included the study of the effects of long-term habitation in space. The interior of the Skylab space station might have been 350 cubic meters but there was nowhere to hide from Ground Control. This was a scientific experiment, on taxpayer expense, and NASA intended to get its money’s worth.

The trend of excessive, panopticon-like control of the crew had been set from the very beginning, when Bill Pogue had vomited shortly after arriving at the station, and decided, in collusion with the other members of the crew, to not  report the incident back to Houston. But the crew were being monitored and eavesdropped on, and soon they were being castigated like a triplet of hand-in-cookie-jar-schoolboys and being warned that all such incidents had to be recorded and reported. That early ‘eavesdropping’ incident was by far the most trust-destroying interaction between the crew and Ground Control.

Faced with remote discipline at its extreme, the crew asserted resistance. The crew acquired notoriety for ‘complaining’; they certainly had the most combative, unvarnished conversations ever with Houston, a far remove from the usual, sanitized excerpts that read, ‘Houston, all systems go, we are ready to go spacewalk and provide wonderful visuals’. Finally, matters came to a head, as Pogue, Carr and Gibson ‘took a day off’. I do not remember what Pogue and Carr did on their self-enforced furlough but Ed Gibson, the Caltech solar physicist, retired to the solar observation station and spent the entire workday recording images on his own sweet time, not bothering to make any detailed entries in his lab handbooks. ‘Negotiations’ followed; work schedules were altered; expectations adjusted, and work went on.

The Skylab story prompted much discussion about the regulation of work in space including suggestions the ‘revolt’ really wasn’t one. But these do not discount the contentious, irritable, edgy relationship between Houston and Skylab-IV, and they certainly do not refute the notion that even highly motivated, highly trained, military types and scientists, fully convinced of the value of their work, when placed in an artificially controlled, too-tightly-regulated environment, are likely to find conditions oppressive and push back.