Topics: African Americans, Diversity in Science, NASA
The inclusion of women and people of color in NASA’s astronaut cadet program was unprecedented — and sometimes met fierce resistance.
The New Guys: The Historic Class of Astronauts That Broke Barriers and Changed the Face of Space Travel, Meredith Bagby, William Morrow (2023)
Growing up in racially segregated South Carolina in the 1950s, Ronald McNair saw door after door slammed in his face. The public pool was for white people only, so he could not learn to swim. When he was nine years old, a librarian called the police on him for trying to borrow calculus books.
McNair fought the racism and went on to study physics at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro — a historically Black institution — and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. In 1978, NASA chose him as a finalist to be an astronaut, in the first group to contain women, people of color, and scientists. His pioneering class included Sally Ride, who would become the first US woman in space; Ellison Onizuka, the first Asian American in space; and Guion Bluford, the first African American in space.
With The New Guys, Meredith Bagby, a film producer and former journalist has produced a broad and easily readable narrative about this group of US astronauts. She does not break new ground in outlining their experiences and the team’s role in space history. But she does illuminate the historic nature of their selection — and, significantly, how they helped to shape NASA’s space shuttle program, from its first flight in 1981 until its end in 2011.
NASA’s first astronaut class, chosen in 1959, was the iconic Mercury Seven which included John Glenn, Alan Shepard, and Gus Grissom. The next six groups were similar: all white, male military pilots lionized for having “the right stuff.” Then came the class of 1978. Of the 35 new astronauts, 14 were civilians, 6 were women, and 4 were men of color.
It was a time of huge change for NASA. The Apollo Moon program had wound down, and NASA had set its sights on developing a reusable space plane that would launch like a rocket and land like an airplane. Astronauts on this vehicle would deploy military and scientific satellites into space. It was time for a new type of astronaut for a new type of spaceship.
Breaking through prejudice
Bagby views the shuttle era through the experiences of its astronauts, with a focus on women moving into new roles. They include Ride, a gay woman who remained in the closet while at NASA because the agency would not hire her otherwise; geologist Kathryn Sullivan; physicians Rhea Seddon and Anna Fisher; biochemist Shannon Lucid; and engineer Judith Resnik.
In the late 1970s, the view in much of NASA’s ranks was that the agency had lowered its standards to admit a more diverse class, and the class acquired the soubriquet “Those Fucking New Guys.” John Glenn and Chuck Yeager, the quintessential “right stuff” pilots, were among those who fought against hiring women as astronauts. Opposition from Yeager had probably helped to keep Ed Dwight, a Black test pilot, from joining a previous class.
Note: Younger me, off Dr. McNair's left shoulder looking down at the floor. Someone dropped their keys, I reacted, and the faux pas is preserved for all Internet eternity.
How NASA’s breakthrough ‘class of ’78’ changed the face of space travel, Alexandra Witze, Nature