AUSTIN (KXAN) — “I think a lot of women are looking to us to prove that women do fit into the space program,” said Rhea Seddon, a surgeon and the fifth woman to fly to space, said in an interview from the late 1970s with a NASA film crew. Rhea had just been announced as one of six women selected to join NASA’s astronaut program. They were the first women to get that chance.
In her new book “The Six: The Untold Story of America’s First Women Astronauts,” author and Bloomberg space reporter Loren Grush, of Austin, highlights the journeys of these women from Earth to the stars.
“What fascinated me was realizing that any one of them could have been the first American woman to fly,” Grush said.
It’s been nearly fifty years since the women were selected in the late 1970s. After more than a decade of only allowing men to join the program, NASA decided to expand their roster. Thousands of women applied for the job. Six were selected.
“As a woman in this field, I’ve definitely been drawn to other women just as a sense of camaraderie,” Grush said.
Why did it take so long to send American women to space?
According to Grush, NASA’s initial batch of astronauts were all test pilots. This was something women weren’t typically allowed to do, and thus, were not allowed to apply for the position.
Some women did make attempts. The Mercury 13 were a group of women that went through spaceflight screenings in 1959. While the group passed all the same tests as their male counterparts, they weren’t allowed to fly.
Wally Funk, one of the original Mercury 13, finally flew to space aboard Jeff Bezos’ privately owned Blue Origin rocket. Otherwise, none of this initial batch of women got to be astronauts.
Russians actually sent the first woman to space. Valentina Tereshkova was sent up in 1963.
But in the late 1970s, NASA introduced the Space Shuttle. Larger than a typical rocket, it opened the door for more diverse crews.
“As a result, NASA created this new role called the mission specialist,” Grush said. “They wanted scientists, researchers, engineers, doctors.”
Who were the first six women American astronauts?
NASA selected Sally Ride, Judy Resnik, Kathy Sullivan, Anna Fischer, Rhea Seddon and Shannon Lucid.
“When I was 12, if someone had offered me the chance to be an astronaut, I would have jumped out at it then,” Ride said at the time. She became the first American woman to fly to space.
Judy Resnik was the second, and the first Jewish American to fly into space. “I would be glad to be the first woman in space. But I would be glad if any of the other five other than me would be the first woman also,” Resnick said.
Kathy Sullivan was the next to fly to space. She was an oceanographer and geologist.
Anna Fischer was next. She became the first woman to perform a spacewalk. “I really believe that man’s future lies in space in the space exploration,” Fischer said.
Rhea Seddon was next. She applied because it sounded “like a neat thing to do.”
Finally, Shannon Lucid flew. She would go to space more than all of the other women combined. “I’ve never done anything thinking, ‘Well, I’m a woman doing this.’ I’m just a person doing whatever it is that I’m doing,” Lucid said.
Grush said the initial batch of women struggled to be taken seriously, even before being selected. “Before them, the door was completely shut. And so when NASA hired these women, it paves the way for more and more women to come after them.”
Since the initial batch of six women, more than fifty American women have gone to space with NASA.
“I certainly feel that women are, are here to stay as part of the space program,” Fischer said.
NASA has said that as part of their return to the moon, a woman and person of color will be part of the first mission.
“The Six: The Untold Story of America’s First Women Astronauts” is available where all books are sold.