NASA said no to women astronauts in 1962 … but women astronauts are the best interviews
In 1962, if you were a woman, then you know – you couldn’t go to the moon. Even low earth orbit was a bit much for NASA to think about. However, NASA would let women swim all day long doing research in the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator – basically a big swimming pool that simulated low gravity – at Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Alabama.
Which is a shame, because women astronauts gave some of the best interviews.I have had the fortune to interview a lot of astronauts, past and somewhat present. Watched former US Sen. John Glenn(first American to orbit the Earth) and Buzz Aldrin (second man on the moon in Apollo 11) argue over a danish once. I saw John Young – who flew in every thing from a small two man Gemini capsule, two Apollo flights, walked on the moon and fly out the first space shuttle missions and ANOTHER space shuttle mission – go half mad one time over the possibility of an asteroid “we know nothing about right now today” destroying planet Earth.
For the most part, male astronauts kind of hem and haw, fall back on tech talk, fly with their hands and ask when do they get to eat (Aldrin loves food). Apollo 16 veteran moonwalker Charlie Duke and I had a wonderful conversation about Moody Air Force Base, where he trained in the 1950s to be a fighter pilot, and South Georgia weather. He had little to say about the moon.
Female astronauts were the best interviews.
Retired NASA astronaut Eileen Collins, who flew on four shuttle flights and commanded two, could switch from the beauty of the Earth in orbit as observed from International Space Station to the engineering redesign that went into making the shuttle safe and able to dock with the station. She never hemmed or hawed, however.
Pam Melroy, who flew on the 100th shuttle launch in October 2000, and two other shuttle missions, loved to talk about the science of the shuttle itself – the discoveries that went beyond the the clearing smoke of a launch. She even appreciated when people told her what it was like to see her launch from the ground “It is a view I didn’t get, but I never get tired of watching with other launches.” Melroy didn’t even fly with her hands once, the half dozen times I spoke with her over a decade.
Cady Coleman, who retired as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, was a PhD chemist when I met her the first time in August 2000. I was covering for the fact that I knew next to nothing about what NASA actually did in the labs – or planned to do in the International Space Station floating lab – on the ground or in the air. Nervously, I called her “Dr. Coleman” like every fifth second … “Call me, Cady (Kay-TEE).” she said.
Then Cady took about five minutes and succinctly explained to me the research purpose of the International Space Station and what the support crews and researchers did on the ground. She never broke her smile or missed a beat. Coleman flew on two shuttle flights, and was the Flight Engineer for the 26th Expedition on the space station.
And how could I forget Suni Williams. She came to Marshall several times, and I interviewed her on the ground twice, and spoke with her once via radio link while she was orbiting the Earth. I asked her if they were lonely in space, and she took me a bit to task. “Well, this isn’t a movie. We are too busy to get lonely.”
Ok, Suni, but you are the one that put a picture of your dog on the station bulkhead because you loved and missed him so much. Still, she was a great interview, too.
Of course, the one woman many people will remember would be Col. Lisa Nowalk, who went slightly nuts – well crazed actually – over a man. Something EVERYBODY has done, and continue to do, in our lives. Although, it is granted, most people don’t ride several hundred miles and assault somebody’s domestic partner.
Nowalk came to Marshall Space Flight Center, and she spoke about the external tank modifications and her work with engineers there as an astronaut representative. She was clear and concise, but seemed a little worried. A few months later, she was the subject of public ridicule after being arrested for stalking another astronaut and threatening his Air Force captain girlfriend. Sad, but women and men astronauts are people, too. They just hide it better.
No, NASA would have been smart to allow women in the astronaut program early on. Maybe their descriptions of the moon would have meant we got a few more missions up there. Who knows?
By the way, those women above shown training, in the photo above, at Marshall’s NBL – Carolyn Griner, Ann Whitaker, and Dr. Mary Johnston – went on to lead Marshall (Griner), its Science Directorate (Whitaker) and Dr. Mary Helen Johnston trained as an astronaut.