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IIn 1973, four years after Neil Armstrong’s space boot struck moon dust in the most famous step ever taken by a man, a NASA report observed that: “Nasa sent three women into space. Two are Arabella and Anita – both spiders. The other is Miss Baker – a monkey. The report’s co-author, Ruth Bates Harris, who the space agency originally hired to head its Equal Opportunity Office, was described as a “disruptive force” and fired a month later.

The prospect of seeing women in space was nothing out of the ordinary. Ten years earlier, 26-year-old Soviet paratrooper Valentina Tereshkova had circled the Earth 48 times – a feat that was not met with enthusiasm by US officials, who traded rumors (that Tereshkova has denied) that she suffered “a kind of emotional breakdown” during the Second World War. flight. At Nasa itself, Jerrie Cobb had already successfully passed the same grueling physical and psychological tests the agency imposed on its all-male Mercury crews in 1960. space girl seems a bit like an astronaut.’) In 1962, Cobb appeared before a House subcommittee to argue for the place of women in the cadre of American astronauts. Her testimony was quickly dismissed by Mercury hero John Glenn, who remarked emphatically, “The fact that women are not active in this field is a fact of our social order. »

These twists and turns of breakthrough and frustration run through journalist Loren Grush’s gripping account of women’s battle for equality in spaceflight. During the early decades of the US space program, aspiring astronauts faced a stumbling block from a bureaucracy determined to prevent change. But by the mid-1970s, NASA had a new ship, the Space Shuttle, on board – and even the most regressive elements of the agency were realizing that it could no longer afford to exclude women and men. people of color. The shuttle, writes Grush, was intended to transform space travel from “something dangerous and expensive into a cheap, routine and safe enterprise”, which would require a wide range of civilian specialists as well as the macho military test pilots of the previous ones. eras. NASA asked African-American actress Nichelle Nichols – Lt. Uhura in Star Trek – to lead its new recruiting drive, and the cohort of 35 unveiled in January 1978 duly included four men of color alongside the “six “, the first female astronauts of the United States.

Grush paints a vivid picture of the rigors faced by these driven and accomplished women before one of them, Sally Ride, became the first American in space in June 1983. (A few months earlier, the Soviets, determined as always to outdo their rivals, had sent their second cosmonaut to a space station, where she was greeted with flowers her colleagues had grown in orbit.) But The Six also has room for entertaining life anecdotes weightless – the gray matter devoted to adapting space toilets for women. ; NASA engineers solemnly ask if 100 tampons per astronaut would be enough for a week in space; Climb in telling mission control that spaceflight was like a VIP pass to Disneyland. Its most striking details include the negotiations over “appropriate” space clothing for biochemist Shannon Lucid when a Saudi prince was invited to join a shuttle mission in 1985; and the arrival of the first lock in space, sent by Nasa officials to the shuttle’s outer hatch, following a previous flight when “questions arose about a passenger’s emotional state” .

Readers encounter perspective lurches similar to those experienced by the book’s astronaut subjects. In one minute, the book describes the awe-inspiring experience of gazing at the division of day and night on the Earth’s surface, or the “thin royal blue line” of its atmosphere. The next focuses on the small details that determine the outcome of a mission: the improvised tools astronauts use to fix a faulty satellite; the small, potentially deadly splinter in the shuttle’s windshield; the cold, stiff O-rings that shattered during the Challenger’s launch in 1986, killing seven crew members, including Judy Resnik, one of the “six”.

This disaster, compounded by the loss of Columbia in 2003, changed NASA’s approach to spaceflight. The Shuttle program was a 20th century vision of a future that never came to pass; In the 21st century, superpower rivalry in space has given way to competition between tech billionaires. While the agency’s Artemis lunar program is still in its early stages, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is currently the only way for NASA astronauts to reach orbit. Grush writes optimistically that the growth of the commercial space industry will provide greater opportunities for female astronauts. Whatever happens next, The Six is ​​an important record of their accomplishments so far.

The Six: The Untold Story of America’s First Female Astronauts by Loren Grush is published by Little, Brown (£25). To support the Guardian and the Observer, buy a copy from Delivery charges may apply.