In 1983, journalist and noted feminist Gloria Steinem interviewed Sally Ride about her experiences as the first American woman in space. In 2016, Glamour magazine published an interview with the female members of NASA’s 2013 astronaut class. Though both interviewers were hugely supportive of their subjects, the contrast is telling.
Ride made history as the first American woman in space aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. She went into space twice, spending more than two weeks in orbit. She was a pioneer, paving the way for women in space and for women in STEM fields in general, but when she first entered the limelight, the media’s response was confusing at best — and belittling at worst.
Anecdotes about Ride’s negative interactions with the media are covered in Steinem’s interview, which was originally part of ABC's "In Conversation with…" The interview is now a part PBS Digital Studio’s series "Blank on Blank," a video project that animates formerly lost interviews. The episode, aptly called “Sally Ride on Dumb Questions,” focuses on the unexpected source of the pressure on Ride. Ride defends members of the space agency while condemning members of the press saying, “Really, the only bad moments in our training involved the press. The press was an added pressure on the flight for me, and whereas NASA appeared to be very enlightened about flying women astronauts, the press didn't appear to be.” She admits that NASA didn't prepare her to deal with the media pressure; she had to navigate those waters alone.
What kinds of questions was Ride asked by the press?
Rather than asking about her scientific qualifications (Ride had a Ph.D. in physics and worked as a capsule commander before going into space), interviewers asked Ride about bathroom concerns and makeup. Ride tells Steinem that one reporter fabricated an entire exchange about whether or not Ride would wear a bra in space. Few questions were asked about Ride’s role as a mission specialist: “They didn't care about how well prepared I was to operate the arm or deploy communications satellites.”
But concerns about space toilets, beauty supplies and underwear were the tip of the iceberg. “The worst question that I have gotten is whether I cried when we got malfunctions in the simulator.” Both Ride and Steinem shared a laugh over that one.
How have things changed?
The eight-member 2013 NASA astronaut class includes four women. Pictured are Anne McClain (from left, front), Tyler "Nick" Hague and Nicole Aunapu Mann. In the back Jessica Meir (from left), Josh Cassada, Victor Glover, Andrew "Drew" Morgan and Christina Hammock Koch. (Photo: NASA/flickr)
There's evidence that at least some modern media representatives know how to treat female scientists with respect. In fall 2015, Ginny Graves, a contributor to Glamour magazine, interviewed four members of the 2013 NASA astronaut class: Jessica Meir, Anne McClain, Christina Hammock Koch and Nicole Aunapu Mann. These women are already making history, as their class is the first to be comprised of 50 percent women.
From beginning to end, the interview is a breath of fresh air. It’s an excellent reflection on the publication. It shows that Glamour understands that its heavily female readership is interested in the pursuits of compelling women in STEM fields.
The astronauts’ answers on topics ranging from their impressive backgrounds to why they chose a career with NASA show that Graves came prepared with thoughtful questions. While the astronauts do talk about being women in this line of work — talking about motherhood and leaving their children behind on Earth — nothing so trivial as makeup and hairstyles is mentioned.
These women could be chosen for a mission to Mars, so the topic of long-term commitments did come up. Mann says, “If I get tapped for the mission, I'll talk to my son about what I'll be doing. He's almost 4 now, but will be a teen or in his 20s by then. His life will change while I'm gone. And that's a big sacrifice.”
The astronauts also reveal insight into their particular brand of “the right stuff” when they discuss their training and how it affected them mentally. Meir discusses a specific moment during spacewalk training: “At one point I saw a classmate in a space suit, and I thought, Oh my God, he's really an astronaut. And then it hit me: After 30 years of wanting this so badly, I'm an astronaut too.”
Understanding what makes astronauts tick has long been of interest to civilians here on Earth, and the Glamour interview reveals more of that. For example, McClain, who regards going into space as her destiny, says, “With so much conflict in the world, space exploration can be a beacon of hope. No one cares about race or religion or nationality in space travel. We're all just part of Team Human.”
The Glamour interview demonstrates precisely how to treat female astronauts — like accomplished individuals with exciting and dangerous lives ahead of them. Hopefully, if the Glamour piece is any indication, these four astronauts won’t experience the same negativity from the press that Sally Ride did 30 years ago. To take Anne McClain’s sentiment to heart, instead of focusing on the differences between men and women, everyone — including the media — should just be on Team Human.