Today, I’m talking with Loren Grush, who longtime Verge fans will remember well — she was our space reporter here for years before she moved over to Bloomberg. It’s always fun to talk space with Loren, but this conversation is particularly exciting since Loren’s new book, The Six: The Untold Story of America’s First Women Astronauts, is out today.
It’s been 40 years since Sally Ride became the first American woman in space — but she was far from the last. She was one of six women astronauts NASA brought in to the astronaut class of 1978. Throughout the early 1980s, each of the six women — Sally Ride, Judy Resnick, Kathy Sullivan, Anna Fisher, Rhea Seddon, and Shannon Lucid — would get a chance to fly a mission on one of the space shuttles… including, unfortunately, the ill-fated 1986 Challenger launch.
The story of the six may be history, but it’s far from ancient, and there’s a lot going on here that ties directly to today. For example, you’ll hear us talking about NASA’s Artemis program and how it has the explicit goal of putting an American woman and person of color on the Moon.
We’ll also talk about a frankly amazing recruitment video that Star Trek star Nichelle Nichols made in the late 1970s to recruit more women and people of color to become astronaut candidates. (You should give it a look.) She wasn’t just recruiting explorers; she was selling space as the future of business. That’s diversity and the commercialization of space, all packed into a single 1970s ad starring a Star Trek actor. Some things just aren’t as new as they seem.
And commercialization of space is a big deal. The space shuttle program — you’ll hear us talk about it as a “space truck” — never became big business the way NASA told us it would. But space is big business now: you can’t talk about space in 2023 without talking about private spaceflight, including SpaceX and Elon Musk, and you’ll hear us discuss the benefits and the dangers of leaving US space exploration in the hands of private enterprise.
And finally, of course, there’s not really any astronaut story without some hijinks in it. Listen to the end for Loren’s favorite story about how three of the six made a Boeing 747 flight instructor regret all his choices midair.
Okay, Loren Grush, author of The Six. Here we go!
This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Loren Grush, you are the author of The Six: The Untold Story of America’s First Women Astronauts. You’re also a space reporter at Bloomberg, and, most importantly, you are a former Verge reporter. Welcome to Decoder.
A Verge graduate, if you will. As you like to say.
You don’t leave. You can check out. You don’t leave. The expats are expats for life.
Yeah, exactly. It’s the unofficial theme song of The Verge. Let’s talk about the book. Very exciting. Your first book. I would say, having known you and worked with you for a long time, the themes of this book are things that you have been thinking about for a very long time. So just start at the start. Tell us about the book.
It’s called The Six. It’s about the first six women astronauts that NASA sent into space, and it chronicles their lives, how they came to the space program, and their inaugural flights with NASA. Basically, it’s set between the mid-’70s and mid-’80s when they came into the program, and it’s capped off by the Challenger accident, as one of the six was unfortunately on board for that accident.
Tell me about the six. Who were they? Where did they come from? It struck me that there’s a lot of books about the first astronauts, first male astronauts. There’s not a lot of coverage of these six women and why there were six women at once at the same time. How did that come to be? Who are these folks?
That’s ultimately why I wanted to write the book. I really, for most of my life, only knew about Sally Ride. I feel like most people know that name, but if I asked who the second American woman in space was, I don’t think a lot of people would know. I certainly didn’t know until I started looking into this. So just to read off their kind of very brief bios: We have Sally Ride, who was the first American woman in space, she was an astrophysicist and former tennis player; followed by Judy Resnik, who was the second woman in space, also the first Jewish American to go into space; followed by Kathy Sullivan, the first American woman to do a spacewalk. Then Anna Fisher, the first mother to go into space, followed by Rhea Seddon, and then Shannon Lucid. Shannon Lucid was the sixth, but she also went on to fly longer in space than all of them, so she had a pretty storied career herself.
There’s been a few of these books and movies that reexamine this pivotal moment in American history, which is told mostly through the lens of swaggering bravado — beating the Soviets, that whole thing. And then it turns out there’s an array of folks who no one really talked about until recently who actually built the foundations of this program. Is that theme present in your book, too? Flipping through it, it’s in there, but then they’re astronauts, and they are the face of the thing, and so it just felt a little different. How did that play out as you were working on the book?
Well, the bravado certainly didn’t dissipate when the women came on board. In fact, that was kind of an underlying theme of the entire time they were there, is that they really were coming into this boys club culture, and back then, they really did not want to make a big deal of the fact that they were the first women. They were all about being one of the guys. And I think that’s just kind of indicative; they didn’t really have the luxury to highlight that they were different. It was all about fitting in as much as possible. There’s a great point in the book where Anna and Sally sneak away to a department store to go pick up khaki shorts and polo T-shirts so that they could fit in. That’s the unofficial uniform of the engineers at the time. And so they wanted to be as seamless in the organization as possible.
That really was the kind of atmosphere that they were coming into, and that really dictated how they reacted to things. They were obviously dealing with a lot of sexist comments and uneducated folks when it came to how to deal with pregnancy, for instance. They really had to keep their cool during this whole time. The first women to do anything always have a bit of a microscope on them, and so, lest they be seen as difficult, they wanted to play by the rules as much as possible and not make a big fuss about various indiscretions.
“They were coming into this boys club culture ... they really did not want to make a big deal of the fact that they were the first women.”
How did NASA pick these six women? Was there a process? At one point in the book, you mentioned someone just had to choose. The administrator at NASA said: “Okay, you’re it.” How did that go?
I was thinking that when it came to the astronaut selection process, it was this rigorous, very objective task, and maybe they even had an algorithm that spat out everybody’s attributes. And while they did try to get as close as they could — they did have a bit of a point system — it really did come down to an interview. So, for these specific astronauts, they were coming in at a time when NASA was somewhat relaxing their requirements to be an astronaut. They were also making a concerted effort to open up the program to a much wider array of individuals. So they were specifically targeting people of color and women because they had done so poorly at getting those people into the program before. They also created a new role called the mission specialist. And so, prior to this, it really was they were looking for people primarily with jet piloting experience, which was impossible for women to achieve back when they were first looking for astronauts because they were banned from flying jets for the military.
They created this mission specialist role that was really geared toward researchers, scientists, engineers, people with advanced degrees in STEM — they were working on various payloads that would be on board the shuttle deploying satellites, things of that nature. That made it easier for people like the women to come on board because they met those requirements for the program. And so, they found out that NASA was looking in the various ways that they found out — each one has a unique story about that. And they sent in their applications, and they were invited to Houston for a week as part of the finalist group. And that’s when they went through a wide array of interesting tasks. There was definitely a slate of physical exams just to make sure that they passed various physical requirements.
They underwent a psych exam that was described as a good cop and a bad cop routine. So there was a good cop psych who would ask you how you felt about your mother and what animal you would be if you were born an animal all over again. And then there was a “bad cop,” a psychologist, who would ask you to count back from a hundred by seven, and then when you inevitably messed up, he’d tell you very loudly and get angry with you to see how you responded.
They also had to enclose themselves in a personal rescue sphere. It was basically a little ball just to make sure that you didn’t freak out when you were in enclosed space for hours at a time. But the real test was an interview, an hour and a half interview with the selection committee, and that was ultimately what decided your fate. As long as you passed all the other tests, it was really there that the astronauts sold themselves. And it was also how the selection committee gauged whether or not they thought the person was right for the job and if they wanted the job — that was a big part of it, too. They didn’t want to put all of this investment into somebody and then have them quit or leave the program.
We live in a very complicated time in terms of conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion. Obviously, when we worked together, you wrote stories about big space companies with harassment problems. We’ll come to that. It just strikes me that this is happening before any of that. There’s no rigor around the value of diversity in an organization. There’s no real understanding of it other than, “Boy, it’s pretty weird there’s no women in space ever!”
That’s more or less the motivation here. But inside of NASA, there’s an organizational restructure that happens to enable more women to enter the field. How did that come about? I mean, that’s kind of a key Decoder question. You have to change NASA to create these opportunities. What was the driving force behind that?
There was a lot of outside pressure in the time that the space race happened. This era of the space shuttle happened — a lot changed in our country. We had the civil rights movement, and we also had the feminist movement, and NASA really couldn’t ignore criticism much longer from people wondering why do we only have white men in the space program? But to your point, it didn’t happen overnight. So, while they did make this effort and this push to bring women and people of color into the program, there was definitely some friction when it came to bringing them on board.
For instance, this was the first time for a lot of the astronauts and engineers working with women in a professional capacity, at an equal capacity. And a lot of them, a few of them have admitted that at the beginning, they were pretty skeptical that the women could hack it. And not just the women but also the researchers, those mission specialist roles. A lot of the military folks were skeptical that the job of an astronaut could be done by someone who had just had a postdoc.
Just a postdoc.
“This was definitely a time where people got away with things they definitely would not be getting away with today.”
Yeah. Now, obviously we know that it’s really available to most, but at the time, it was not seen that way. And there’s various instances in the book that I highlight where that culture clash did indeed happen. This was definitely a time where people got away with things they definitely would not be getting away with today. There’s one astronaut who admitted to me that he used to have a Playboy calendar up on the back of his door, and so when his door was open, you couldn’t see it, but when it was closed, you could definitely see it, and the women kind of just had to go along with it.
For instance, Judy Resnik, she had a bit of a reputation for being able to hang with the guys on their terms. And so whenever she’d leave the office, she’d just pat the Playboy calendar on her way out. Obviously, that’s just not the kind of thing that would fly today. It was just things like that. And obviously some unenlightened attitudes, not just from the men but from the women. There were a number of wives of the astronauts at the time who didn’t want the women flying in the backseat of the T-38 jets with their husbands just because they felt like that was too close proximity, and they didn’t want them getting too close.
What are you going to do in a T-38?
That’s what I was thinking! I imagine there’s very limited mobility in there. So I’m not sure there’s much concern, but that was just the attitude at the time. Lots of hiccups where people were thinking, “Oh, how would this be seen if I was with you?” Just various things that we just would not put up with today, but they had to put up with it, and not only did they have to put up with it, but they had to put up with it in a delicate way so that they didn’t draw attention to it; otherwise, that could potentially be used against them and against women being in the program.
So you’ve got the six back then, right? They’re slapping the Playboy calendar on the way out the door. You obviously are writing the book now. Everyone’s got the benefit of hindsight. What are their attitudes now about making that change? Because this is big — it’s an organizational change, it’s a cultural change. They had to be the face of it. There has been a long and winding conversation about that brand of feminism, even compared to today. What is the attitude of the six today toward the things they had to do back then?
Their attitude was mostly positive. I think they all felt that they were treated quite well, and I think that also might have to do with how they were treated before they came to NASA. Shannon Lucid is a great example of this. She was slightly older than the rest of the six when she was picked, and just by living in a slightly different era, she had so much difficulty when it came to getting just a job before she went to NASA. She wanted to be a chemist, and she had a Master’s, and then she got her PhD, but she had to fight endlessly for anyone to give her not only a job but just equal pay to her male colleagues. People would actively tell her, “Nobody’s going to hire you — you’re a woman.” And so I think they were all very pleasantly surprised when they came into the space program because, at the time, they were actively wanting women to participate at that time.
“A lot of the burden was on Sally’s shoulders because she was the first American woman to fly, and that came with an exponentially greater amount of pressure and asks of her than the other five had to go through.”
Now, I will say that I do think it’s a bit different today. As I mentioned earlier, that time period was all about fitting in and kind of blending into the background. Obviously, the press didn’t let them do that because they were very much agog at the idea of women flying into space. Some of the questions they were asked by the press were just completely terrible. But, ultimately, the goal of the six was to just be one of the guys, keep your head down, and work as much as possible and not draw too much attention to the fact that they are women.
I think we’ve evolved a bit today where obviously we still want equality when it comes to everyone that we work with, but I do think that we are a little bit easier or have an easier time at celebrating the fact that we’re women and the things that make us unique and different. I think that, ultimately, they had to go through that in order for us to get to where we are, which is the burden that they had to bear. But I think we have gotten to a place where we can say, “I am different, but also, that means I should still be treated the same.”
Do they think of it as a burden? I guess that’s the heart of my question. It seems like they are proud of being pioneers. They’re proud of making the change. They have some funny stories to tell, but I didn’t get from the book the sense that there was a weight or a burden that they felt they had carried, that other people owed them anything for, that they were just happy to have been astronauts.
I think, for the most part, yes, and I don’t think they wanted to draw too much attention to it. I think a lot of the burden was on Sally’s shoulders because she was the first one to fly, the first American woman to fly, and that came with an exponentially greater amount of pressure and asks of her than the other five had to go through. So, for Sally, she was just inundated with media requests, lots of personal questions that she didn’t want to answer, and then she was mostly shielded from it ahead of her flight. But then, when she returned to Earth, it was definitely a coming-back-to-earth moment. That protection was gone, and she was just inundated with requests, and it got to be so much that she actually sought out therapy at one point, and it really did take a bit of a toll.
But, ultimately, over time, she realized just how monumental her flight was, and it inspired her — talking to young women — to go on to create her nonprofit, which she dedicated most of her life to: Sally Ride Science, which is geared toward inspiring young women to get into STEM fields. So, yes, there definitely was a burden. I think for most of them, it doesn’t feel too oppressive, and they’re proud of it, but there was a time where it was a particular struggle for some of them.
I always think about the organization, and what created the opportunities. It’s Decoder, after all. There were earlier attempts to bring women into the program. They kind of failed. Right? In the book, you mentioned the Mercury 13. There are some others. Why did those fail?
I wouldn’t even say they were attempts to bring women to the program, or at least NASA wasn’t attempting to bring women to the program; the women were fighting to bring themselves into the program. So, yes, they’re kind of a famous group. They’re referred to now as the Mercury 13 — not the best title. It was a name given to them by, I think, a producer in the ’90s or something like that. But it does refer to 13.
They blew up an asteroid that was threatening the Earth, I believe.
Oh man, if only. No, so there are 13 women who underwent some of the same tests that the Mercury Seven underwent. They passed them, and so they wanted to keep training for space. So they had some upcoming training planned out at a military base, but NASA caught wind of it, and since they hadn’t requested funding for that training, it got canceled.
They did this big congressional hearing to try and get that funding resumed or get that training resumed, and they were kind of asking the bare minimum. Obviously, they wanted to go to space, but ultimately, they just wanted to keep training to see if they were capable and if they were able to pass those tests. Ultimately, that was squashed. There’s a pretty great but also terrible scene of John Glenn coming into the hearing and basically saying, “The men are the ones that go off and do these things, and the women are the ones that don’t. That’s just the natural order of things,” and it just shows what everyone was up against at the time, and it’s great that we’ve very much evolved since then.
So there’s that — that all sounds horrible — and then there’s the six. Inside of that, beyond just public pressure, what happened inside of NASA? Just response to public pressure: “We’ve got to do this,” or “Okay, there’s a program. The program is going to end with the creation of the mission specialist, an opening of our criteria.” How did that process play out? Because that’s the big change that enables all this to happen, right?
“There have been three females sent into space by NASA. Two are Arabella and Anita, both spiders. The other is Ms. Baker, a monkey.”
It was the creation of the mission specialist. There’s also internal pressure at NASA as well. There’s a great story about the saga of Ruth Bates Harris, who was really trying to open everyone’s eyes to the problem of diversity that NASA had. I mean, there’s a great quote in the book from one of the reports that they did; it says: “There have been three females sent into space by NASA. Two are Arabella and Anita, both spiders. The other is Ms. Baker, a monkey.”
That’s not great.
That was the state of diversity and inclusion at the time before the women came on board. So definitely internal pressure there, external pressure just from the changing of the country, and then also the creation of the space shuttle, which was a much more spacious vehicle, allowed for a wider variety of crews on board. And so all of those things together allowed for women to be inducted into the program. But also, like I said, NASA deliberately made an effort to reach out to these folks. They targeted Lions Clubs, universities, places of higher education, places where they thought women would be, where they thought people of color would be. They even recruited Nichelle Nichols, who everyone knows as Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, to do a promotional video. She was so excited about doing that, and actively, in that video, she was encouraging women and people of color to apply. So it really shows that you do have to put these things top of mind in order for them to be successful.
That Nichelle Nichols video is bananas. Everyone should go watch it. It is wild. The themes in that video are laser — the same themes of today. So, at one point, she’s like, “We’re in the business of space now with this space shuttle. It’s going to fly like an airplane, regularly scheduled. You can get on it. We’re not just exploring. We’re doing business now.”
That’s where we are now, that’s where we have arrived, but in that moment, that wasn’t true!
I was just about to say, there’s plenty up for debate of whether or not those words actually came to fruition. That’s also a theme in the book as well, NASA’s conceit and whether or not the space shuttle really turned out to be this reliable routine truck that they were advertising.
You call it a truck?
I believe I did use the term truck in the book, they were using truck, they were definitely using some kind of car analogy, like a freighter or something like that.
So a semi truck — it’s going to ship things to space and bring them back.
Exactly. And it was going to be just as reliable as driving across the country. Going to space was just going to be as reliable as that. Obviously, as time progressed, NASA kind of played a little fast and loose with the safety on board the Shuttle. I think it was after four flights they declared the shuttle operational. But most of the astronauts at the time never considered the space shuttle operational. They always regarded it as a very complex machine that carried a lot of risk, and there was no room for complacency whenever they flew on it.
Over time, they invited more and more non-astronauts to fly. So they had a lot of payload specialists that flew. They flew a number of politicians. And when I first learned that years ago, I was shocked because I did grow up with the space shuttle, but I grew up after the Challenger accident happened, and then it was just inconceivable to fly a politician. They were also gearing up to fly the first journalist into space at the time before Challenger, and then infamously, on Challenger, they flew the first teacher to go into space. So it just kind of goes to show that they were trying to consider it as this thing — “Oh, it’s safe, it’s fine, everything’s all right” — but then they learned the lesson in a very horrible way in 1986.
That’s what struck me as I watched this Nichelle Nichols video — which, by the way, is very entertaining. I can see why it worked to recruit women and people of color to be astronauts. The conceit of it is that space has been solved, that in this product of the space shuttle, we have solved space, and now we should give a bunch of people new kinds of jobs, and everyone is welcome to apply because space is a business now.
That led directly to tragedy because the pressure on that to be true was so high. But underneath it is: okay, now there’s a new cast of characters, in particular the six, being recruited to fly in the shuttle who maybe can’t complain as much as they should because they’re already in the public eye, and they already think it’s dangerous. That interplay just seems like it was always kind of destined for tragedy.
That’s something that they were very cognizant of at the time: You can’t complain, and also, you can’t mess up. So one of the things that Sally talked about, one of her fears before she flew, was that she was going to somehow make a mistake. And I think that is a very poignant thing to say because there’s a lot loaded in that phrase. She knew that if she messed up — and I think this is true for any underrepresented group that does something for the very first time — they are representing everyone. They’re not just representing themselves — they’re representing everyone. And so when the magnifying glass is upon them, they know that if they make a mistake or an error, it will be used to say, oh, it’s not just Sally that can’t hack space. It’s that every woman cannot hack space.
They were all very cognizant of that during training and especially when they flew. Even Judy, who was second [of the six] in space, there’s a funny story about a snafu she had with her hair on board, and she swore all of her crew mates to silence because she knew if that got out, the headlines would be: “Long hair not suitable for space.” Just something like that. So it was definitely something they all had to be very cognizant of the entire time they were there. It did abate over time with each time one of them flew. But yeah, it hung heavy on everything that they did.
The book closes with the Challenger disaster and the aftermath of it. That has been well reported at this point, and well investigated and documented. From your perspective, as you’re writing the book and thinking about, “Okay, we’re diversifying the space program,” what were the effects post-Challenger of how NASA thought about recruiting new and different kinds of astronauts?
The one positive thing is that ever since this class of astronauts came on board, they’ve welcomed more and more diverse range of astronauts into the program. So that was definitely a positive. They also completely reevaluated their safety procedures in light of the Challenger accident. So many years ago, I was shocked to learn that people flew to space in just kind of onesie outfits. I mean, they were flight suits. They weren’t onesies. I think they’re top and bottom, but it was essentially just like a garment you would wear here on the ground. I’ve always known them to be flying with pressure suits, which are essentially a special kind of space suit that’ll apply pressure in case they lose pressure in the cabin, which is what happened — or which is what they think happened in the Challenger accident. They also provided more bailing-out opportunities. The shuttle never really was that safe of a vehicle because there was no true abort system, but they at least tried to come up with other ways that they could bail out of the cabin if there was an issue. And then they also just completely redesigned the components that were to blame for Challenger and upended the processes through which they decide whether or not it’s time to go fly.
So it definitely had a positive impact there. Also, the family members of the Challenger astronauts created the Challenger Center, a learning organization that reaches out to children and inspires them to go into space and STEM. So, a lot of good did come out of it, but it also is just tragic that it had to happen in order for those things to move forward.
Let’s skip ahead to now, basically. Your book is coming out right on time: Sally Ride’s first flight, almost exactly 40 years ago — maybe a little more than 40 years ago?
It was in June of this year, yeah.
It’s been 40 years. There has been this sort of big conversation about diversity in our workplaces, diversity in the sciences. In aerospace specifically and NASA specifically, where do you think the biggest changes have been?
We are working to get back to the Moon through NASA’s Artemis program, and that has a stated goal of sending the first woman and the first person of color to the surface of the Moon. I don’t think that’s ever been outwardly a goal of a NASA human space flight mission before, so that is a very big change. Also, through that program, they have assigned the first crew to Artemis 2, and that includes Victor Glover and Christina Koch, and they’ll be the first person of color and the first woman to fly to deep space. They won’t be landing on the Moon, but they will be flying around the Moon. That will be another big milestone, but at the same time, there’s still quite a long way to go.
I point out that less than one-sixth of the people who’ve been to space are women. The statistics for women of color are abysmal. It is an interesting time for space because we have way more companies and opportunities to send people to space than ever before. We have SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic, albeit suborbital for the latter two, but it’s still a way to send people to space. It is another opportunity for more people to get into space who might not have had that chance before.
Unfortunately, it’s like a win-lose situation in my mind because you still have to have a pretty hefty wallet in order to afford those missions, but there have been generous benefactors who have brought people with them who would not have had that opportunity. There’s also charities and raffle draws that have allowed people to go on those flights. So there is more availability to go to space than ever before. It’s still not perfect, and we still have a long way to go to reach true parity, but we have hope, and we have more opportunities than we used to have.
“We still have a long way to go to reach true parity, but we have hope, and we have more opportunities than we used to have.”
Can I ask you a big think question about that? I think about the Blue Origin flights and the Virgin Galactic flights, and I laughed when you said “suborbital” because we’ve all watched the videos. They go up there, they float around for a few seconds, they come back down, and that — yep, they’re going to space. But the value of that going to space and saying, “Okay, a diverse group of people has floated about for a few seconds,” versus what we think of when we think about NASA. A diverse group of people is going to do science in space, or a diverse group of people is going to go up there for more than a few seconds, have a set of experiences, and then bring that back down to earth and be ambassadors for everyone else.
That’s very different than just floating around. And I recognize the floating around — it’s very difficult to get to the point where you can float around, but they’re very different things, and we kind of munge them together into “going to space.” In the community, is there a sense that those are different, that sending a diverse crew of people up on a Blue Origin flight to float around and take pictures is meaningfully different than going to space to do science?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, some people will probably be outright about it. Obviously, there’s a lot of discussion of whether or not we even should call people who fly on Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic astronauts. I obviously don’t care that much, but to some, it is a very important distinction. A lot of times, people will refer to them as space flight participants because they’re not...
Yeah, because they’re just...
That is delightfully passive-aggressive.
It really is. I do think there is a lot of value in what Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic provide. For instance, Virgin Galactic just performed its first commercial space mission after nearly 20 years of being in existence. And that first flight was a research mission with the Italian Air Force, and so they packed the cabin full of payloads and experiments that the space flight participants, the researchers, attended to while they were in space. And so that is often propped up as kind of this in-between platform between the Vomit Comet — that parabolic flight where you experience microgravity for 30 seconds at a time here on Earth — and also going to orbit, which takes a lot more time, a lot more energy, and a lot more money. So there is definitely that kind of scientific value there. But yes, there is quite a significant distinction between going to space for a few minutes, coming back down right after and going to orbit, and definitely a very vast chasm in terms of how you train for both of those scenarios.
Do you think there’s the same amount of value that we get as a society or as a public or as a community from those more touristy flights versus, “Okay, we’re building a generation of scientists that are organized around being astronauts”?
You’re asking my personal opinion?
I mean, you’re the one who just wrote a book about...
That’s true. That’s true.
I’ll ask you a hypothetical. Maybe it’s a little more challenging but a little more direct: if the first six women in space had been on Blue Origin flights, would that have been a good thing?
I definitely think it would have a very different kind of impact. I think sending them to orbit by far was much more of a statement than would’ve been made if they had just gone for a few minutes; it would’ve felt a bit like a consolation. But at the same time, Alan Shepard was the first American man in space, and his flight was suborbital as well. And that is still considered a pretty monumental achievement, so I’m sure we would’ve celebrated it at the time. That’s just true of any space flight. Orbit is infinitely cooler. Sorry to everyone, but not everyone has the ability to go to orbit. It is expensive. It’s millions of dollars.
Someone just canceled their million-dollar Blue Origin reservation after listening to this podcast.
You’ve reported a lot on these companies. You reported a lot on them here at The Verge: the commercialization of space in general — a huge monumental shift. I promised you before you came on to talk about your book about the first six women in space we would not talk about Elon Musk too much, but if you talk about the president of space, that is part of the story, right? That a handful of big private companies who’ve effectively taken over space exploration in the United States — SpaceX is obviously one of them, the most important; Blue Origin, the other most famous. There’s some others.
“They kind of brush things off just because, I think, we’re in this really precarious position where NASA is so reliant on SpaceX.”
The cultures of these companies, you’ve reported on them at The Verge when you were here, right? There have been allegations of sexual harassment in these companies. Bezos literally wearing a cowboy hat when he did his Blue Origin stuff — the culture of that company, you’ve reported on, kind of a cowboy culture. Does NASA have control of that, or is that “the companies are private companies, and they’re going to do what they are, and they’re vendors to the government”?
That is a question we’ve been asking for some time, especially when Elon makes his statements that he does. I believe the answer is no. NASA does not have control over it, and that’s kind of how these arrangements work. NASA is buying a service from the company just as you and I buy a service whenever we order something online. Obviously, it’s a bit more complicated than that, and they have a bit closer of a relationship, but that is kind of what they’re trying to achieve. And so, ultimately, I’m sure they can express their dismay whenever these things happen, but they don’t have control over Elon. We have repeatedly asked during press conferences, “Elon did this recently, or he said this recently, when is that going to be an issue? At what point do you worry about the things that he says?”
Ultimately, they kind of brush things off just because, I think, we’re in this really precarious position where NASA is so reliant on SpaceX, and they need the company in order to send astronauts to the space station, to resupply the space station. They’re now building the human lunar lander for the Artemis program. So it is a very interesting place to be in. And I’ve also heard a great point that what happens if SpaceX were to go bankrupt one day? It’s not even just what Elon is saying or even how their internal sexual harassment procedures are going, but what if they are no longer in existence? There’s a variety of reasons we should be concerned about how reliant we are on one space company.
The whole point of commercialized space was that you would create a market, that there’d be a lot of competitors, that if SpaceX wasn’t cheap enough, you could go to Lockheed Martin or whatever. That hasn’t played out. Do you see any glimmers of that competition coming to this industry?
I think there are a lot of companies that are trying.
When Loren was at The Verge, she did a lot of stories on the companies that were trying.
Yes, yes, I did. And one of the things I always joke about is my beat makes plenty of my stories obsolete not even a year or two after I’ve written them. So I bet there’s a bunch of things I’ve written...
Yes. Or just programs that were promised, and then all of a sudden, they disappear. Virgin Orbit, rest in peace. We wrote a lot about them when I was there, and they filed for bankruptcy this year and are no more. That’s just the nature of space — it is a very capital-intensive business, and it takes a lot of time in order to become a mature business. And SpaceX obviously started many years ago, I mean, not too long ago, but longer than a lot of these startups. And so it’s just a lot of them are trying to play catch up, and it’s hard to compete with [SpaceX] because they have dominated the market for a while now. But it’s still a very exciting time to be covering space because there are so many hopeful companies that are emerging and trying to compete with SpaceX.
Now, one thing that is very important to me and relates back to the book is that we can say that we are being diverse and inclusive with these new efforts, and we can send the right people into space and try to right those wrongs. But at the same time, the space industry is just an industry like any other in the tech industry, and it is still filled with problems in terms of, as you mentioned, sexual harassment and diversity and inclusion that I think sometimes get swept under the rug because it’s space and we see it as this hopeful endeavor. And while it is, it’s still a business, and people are at the heart of that business, and so there’s still a long way to go. We might be getting better when it comes to the people we’re sending into space, but the people who are sending them into space are also dealing with the same issues and structural problems that we’ve all been dealing with for decades now.
“These were women trying to do their jobs, but they just had a lot of people watching them do that job ... at the end of the day, they just want it to work.”
That’s borne out in your stories now at Bloomberg. When I was working with you at The Verge, a lot of the stories were like, people at work are unhappy about work. And it was like the same story, just they happened to work on rockets.
And it’s the same for the six, too. I mean, that’s ultimately what I hope people take away. These were women trying to do their jobs, but they just had a lot of people watching them do that job. And it creates frustrations and interesting situations, but at the end of the day, they just want it to work.
Do you think it’s easier now? Again, it’s 40 years later; a lot of these problems, we still talk about them, loudly in controversial ways, but it’s an ever-present part of our conversation about work now. Do you think that’s made it easier to enter science, enter space?
Oh, I definitely think we’ve made it a lot easier. There are a lot of great initiatives that target women and people of color to help them get jobs in the space industry. The Brooke Owens Fellowship is one that I really like a lot, but like I said, it’s not as if we’ve solved all the issues just because we are finding more ways for people to get into space. There’s still quite a bit of sexual harassment. HR is not paying attention, things getting swept under the rug. And it’s important to me, if I do hear about those things, to try and highlight it as best I can. It’s very difficult, but it will always remain important to me.
One of the things you call out in the book is, as the six grow up, they’re in an environment where the space race with the Russians is ever-present. I think it’s Rhea Seddon you call out — she was on a path to be a very prim Southern belle, and then the space race happened and science education was flooded into American public schools, and she ended up being a doctor, and then she ended up being an astronaut. Do you see any of that sort of big structural pressure on us right now? Does our competition with China mean we’re investing a lot into science education, which means we’ll create a generation of female scientists? I don’t see that. I’m wondering if, in writing the book, you saw any parallels to today?
The China discussion is interesting to me because that is often invoked as kind of this analog for the space race. It’s no longer that we’re in a race with the Soviets or Russia — it’s “we’re in a race with China,” and it just doesn’t have the same gravitas that I think the Cold War did simply because the US has already “won.” We’ve been to the Moon. We have done all of these things. I definitely think people will be very upset if China sends somebody to the Moon, but I just don’t think it inspires that same level of urgency that the Soviet Union did at the time. So you’re right, it’s not playing out in the same way, but I do think a lot of NASA leadership and political leadership are trying to make it into a similar situation because they want that similar sense of urgency, and they want that funding because that was a big part of the space race.
NASA’s budget swelled quite a bit because it was such a national priority at the time. We are definitely nowhere near that level. There are other things, other pressing things at the moment, especially when it comes to climate change. And I think that’s fine. That is kind of a big pressing problem that we do need to address. I don’t think it needs to be an either / or situation. NASA’s role can certainly play a major part in the climate change initiative, but you’re right. I don’t think the China and US space race — first of all, there’s a lot of debate of whether it is a race, and second of all, is it something that we necessarily need to be wringing our hands about?
What’s interesting about this whole conversation is when it is a big national priority with swelling budgets, you can impose some pressure on a government agency to say, “Okay, you need to put more women and people of color into this program. This should look like the United States.” When it’s the government contracting a vendor like SpaceX, A) that pressure is hard. And then B) not for nothing, the CEO of SpaceX owns a car company that does a lot of business in China, and that seems like it’s incredibly complicated for anyone to piece through. So we just don’t talk about it a lot, but we pretend it’s a race. And I’m wondering, fundamentally, can the government get through that and create space as a national priority again, or have we just sort of handed this off to Elon and SpaceX?
This is a great question. I think space is always a priority because we’ve always been the leaders in the space field, and we will probably remain that way for some time. I do think that if China advances much more, there will be concern; there will be a level of outcry. Whether or not that’s warranted is up for debate, but I’m sure that will happen. It was a bit of a perfect storm when the space race happened, right? And I don’t think those conditions will ever really happen again. So I don’t know if we will be able to recreate that kind of very ravenous time for space that we did back then.
I do think that everyone thinks that our space priorities are nice to have. And obviously, when we do big, bold things in space, they are applauded by the political leaders of the time regardless of whether or not they started those initiatives. But I think it’s also very easy to cut those things when there are other pressing issues coming down the road. Like I said, I don’t necessarily think these need to be either / or. NASA’s famously 0.5 percent of the federal budget. So it does not take up a lot of resources, but it always kind of gets on the chopping block when people say we’re spending too much because it just doesn’t feel like something that is super pressing to our needs.
So you and I are talking the day after a big Ronan Farrow profile of Elon Musk came out in The New Yorker. There’s a lot of discussion about SpaceX in there, and there’s a quote from Jim Bridenstine, a former head of NASA. He was appointed by Trump. He’s a conservative. And the quote is about SpaceX, and it just really struck me.
He says, “There is only one thing worse than a government monopoly, and that is a private monopoly that the government is dependent on.” Then he compares SpaceX to the OceanGate situation. He says, “We just saw this submersible going down to visit the Titanic implode. People won’t be confident in the capabilities commercial companies have [if something goes wrong]. I think we have to think about the non-regulatory environment as sometimes hurting the industry more than the regulatory environment.”
This is not what you would expect to hear from a conservative Trump appointee who famously led an expansion of commercial space and who I think, by all accounts, was considered a success in doing it. He’s saying, “Look, we’re really dependent on this company. If they get something wrong, public confidence in space is going to plummet.” Is that pressure real, or is this “he’s out, he doesn’t need the job anymore, he can just say whatever he wants to say”? Or is that actually percolating through the space community?
“When you are calling for change right after a tragedy, the decisions we make aren’t necessarily the right ones if they’re hasty.”
I think I would be remiss if I didn’t point out Bridenstine is now on Viasat’s board, so I’m sure there’s some conflict of interest there, but he’s not wrong. We were just discussing this earlier. SpaceX is our space program right now. I mean, it is — I probably will get a lot of flack for saying that — but it is fundamentally tied with NASA. If they were to suddenly disappear, we would lose a lot of access and a lot of things. And like I said, this industry takes a lot of time to develop. We can’t just come up with new capabilities overnight. And so a lot of people make fun of Boeing Starliner, which has been taking so long to get to the International Space Station, but ultimately, it will be a good thing if and when it flies because then we’ll have that extra redundancy in case there, heaven forbid, there is some kind of issue with the Crew Dragon. So yeah, I think those words are definitely relevant and make a lot of sense. As for OceanGate, I did make kind of similar parallels in a story.
For right now, there is a moratorium on regulating human space flight for safety, and that is ending soon. The FAA is starting to think about what regulations might look like. But the concern is what happens if something bad happens? And it’s not even an if — a lot of people have kind of said a when situation, and that’s going to have a lot of eyes on it. There’s going to be a lot of opinions. And if / when that happens, there’s probably going to be a lot of calls for change.
And when you are calling for change right after a tragedy, the decisions we make aren’t necessarily the right ones if they’re hasty. And so that was the point that was made in the article that I wrote, just that we want to be smart about these things if and when something does go wrong so that we have the proper protocols in place and that we aren’t hastily putting things into motion that are less safe.
Let’s end by talking about the book. It is a great book. Everyone should go read it, and it’ll be available after this podcast goes out. So go buy it right away. What’s your favorite story from the book?
Oh, my favorite. There’s so many great stories, the women proving themselves when you’d least expect it. There’s a great moment where three of the women and three of their male colleagues fly up to Boeing. They went to check out the 747 that was used to ferry the Shuttle across the country whenever it needed to be moved. They were walking around with this Boeing instructor, and he asked if they wanted to check out the plane, and they were thinking the simulator, and they were like, “No, let’s go fly the plane, the actual 747.”
So they get inside, and then the instructor’s like, “Alright, so Judy, Anna, Sally, do y’all want to do some touch and goes?” where you take off and you land. What he didn’t know is, they weren’t technically pilots, or if they had flown, they hadn’t flown a plane of that size before. So one of them pipes up, and they’re just like, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” And so they practiced. They went back and forth doing touch and goes. And then at one point, the instructor turned to Sally, and he was like, “So what other planes have you been checked out on?”
And she goes, “Oh, none.” And he just kind of went completely ghost-white because he thought they were all pros. They were all flying like pros — just a testament to how well they were adapting to the training at the time.
That’s awesome. Well, the book is really fun. It’s full of stories like that. I encourage everyone to go out and read it. Loren, always one of my very favorite expert people, in the family forever. Thanks for coming on Decoder.
Thank you for having me.
Decoder with Nilay Patel /
A podcast about big ideas and other problems.