Hitting the books: NASA's Class 8 broke color barriers and glass ceilings

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AThe first American astronauts of the 1960s were all drawn from the highest ranks of the national army. As such, early NASA classes tended to conform to a fairly specific demographic theme – a white, masculine, flat haircut, you could also set a watch. However, in the mid-1970s, the space agency adapted to the times and opened up the space walking profession to more former Air Force and Navy test pilots.

In The new guys, author Meredith Bagby follows the exploits of NASA’s class of astronauts of 1978 – “Class 8”, the first American, African American, Asian American and gay women to fly in space – from the selection of the team to their mastery of advanced technologies on board the Space Shuttle and their historic orbital missions. In the clip below, Class 8 gets a blunt introduction to the dangers that await them.

white background with four color photos of various astronauts who do not resemble first generation GI Joe action figures alternating left and right alignment with the seated alternate title.

Harper Collins Publishing

From The new guys by Meredith Bagby. Copyright © 2023 by Meredith Bagby. Reprinted by kind permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Johnson Space Center, Houston. July 1978

“Hey! We’ve got a fire in the cockpit!” a man shouted, then his voice trailed off. Within seconds, another desperate voice broke through the static.

“We have a bad fire. . . !” cried the second man in pain.

“We are burning. . . !!!” yelled a third.

Then the transmission faded into nothing but static.

In one of Mission Control’s many multilevel seats, Ron McNair and his new classmates listened to a recording of the Apollo 1 fire. During a pre-flight test on Jan. 27, 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee had been burned alive. Even though more than a decade had passed since the accident, the pain and fear of the astronauts who perished was palpable in the hall of new recruits.

The instructor examined the faces of the astronaut candidates. Are you sure you’re ready for this? The audio was a wake-up call, especially for those like Ron who hadn’t served in the military and had never had a job with life-threatening consequences. If that reality was too much for any of them to accept, the instructor suggested, it was time to go. Nobody moved.

A few weeks earlier, as Ron moved his family across the country, from Malibu, Calif., left, to the Lone Star State, summer was sizzling. The Bee Gees’ disco hits “Night Fever” and “Stayin’ Alive” blared from the radio. Billboards advertised the new Hollywood blockbuster Grease, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. In the nation’s capital, nearly one hundred thousand demonstrators marched in support of the Equal Rights Amendment – ​​at the time, the largest women’s rights march in US history. Muhammad Ali was about to make history at the Louisiana Superdome, becoming the first man to win the world heavyweight title three times in a row.

When Ron and his wife, Cheryl, arrived in Houston, they found a small starter apartment before moving to Clear Lake with the Onizukas and the Gregorys. Anyone who had kids—or was planning on having kids—wanted a lawn for football and a cul-de-sac for biking. The neighborhood’s proximity to colleges and high schools makes it an obvious choice for families. Single astronauts like Sally Ride, Kathy Sullivan and Steve Hawley have settled into apartments just outside Johnson’s back door with a short commute, a volleyball court and a communal barbecue.

The Monday following the July 4 holiday, Ron walked through the doors of Johnson Space Center for his first day on the job. Looking up from his bewildering schedule filled with acronyms, Ron spotted a few of his classmates and followed them to Building 4, Johnson’s flight crew operations headquarters. Everyone was rushing to the Monday morning general meeting, a staple of the Astronaut Office since the days of Mercury.

Standing guard from their office doors, Sylvia Salinas, Mary Lopez and Estella Hernandez Gillette, all in their twenties, felt the excitement as the new astronauts crowded the hallways. The Hispanic-American administrative staff – working in and around the astronaut office – became known as the Mexican Mafia. As liaisons for George Abbey and John Young, Sylvia and Mary, and later Estella, ran the show behind the scenes, making sure everything ran smoothly in the astronauts’ office. Until then, the astronauts they worked for were military, older and more conventional; they did not fraternize with the support staff. Now “kids like them” were pouring in. The arrival of the Class 8 astronaut was like a breath of fresh air.

A large conference table surrounded by two circles of chairs dominated room 3025, where the Monday meeting was held. Assuming the first ring was reserved for administrators and senior astronauts, Ron sat in the back row, like the rest of his class. Everyone except blond, mustached Rick Hauck, a US Navy commander who, by military standards, was the highest-ranking pilot in his class. Hauck sat down at the table. Some in the room gasped. Others looked at him suspiciously. Wow, he must be either a jerk or the most confident bastard among us. Maybe both. In any case, he marked the spirits.

Like Hauck, the fifteen fighter pilots in Ron’s class had a lot of swagger and bravado, and mingled easily with veteran astronauts. The alumni, twenty-eight in all, including moonwalkers John Young and Alan Bean, whom Ron met during interview week, filled the inner circle. Among them were astronauts still looking forward to their first trip to space, like Bob “Crip” Crippen, the group’s forty-year-old baby, and Richard “Dick” Truly, both career military pilots who had flown for the Navy and Air. Strength. These guys who hadn’t flown yet were caught between two programs, too late for Apollo and, so far, too early for the shuttle. Crippen and Truly were part of Astronaut Group 7, which was transferred to NASA after the cancellation of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), a classified Cold War military project developed to acquire surveillance imagery from space. . After a decade at the agency, former MOL astronauts had only ever flown a desk.

Everyone here wanted a ticket to space, but the ten interesting people would set a historic precedent, breaking down the barriers that in the past prevented people like them from traveling to space. Of the six women in the room, one would be the first American in space. While the Soviets piloted the first female astronaut, Valentina Tereshkova, being the first American woman in space would earn a place in the annals of history. In 1978, no black people had flown into space. Ron, along with Guy Bluford and Fred Gregory would compete to be first, while Ellison Onizuka would almost certainly be the first Asian American to fly. Guy and Fred, both Vietnam veterans, and El, an Air Force test pilot, all spoke the military language of the ancients. Ron was a stranger even among strangers.

John Young, head of the astronaut office, started the meeting by muttering “a few forgettable words of welcome” while fixing his shoes. Although he had braved the depths of space four times, on both Apollo and Gemini, Young had not conquered public speaking. Compact, with a jockey-like build, Young was a handsome navy devil with big ears and an aw-shucks demeanor that belied just how meticulous he really was. He preferred solving tough engineering problems to dealing with management problems, and yet he was here as the head of the astronaut office. He explained to the new class that they weren’t astronauts yet; they were always astronaut candidates, or “AsCans” for short. It was only after two years of training that they would earn the title of astronaut and a silver pin to mark their achievement.

Inspired by Navy and Air Force aviator insignia, the lapel pin featured a trio of fused rays atop a bright star and surrounded by a halo indicating orbital flight. The silver pin meant you were ready for flight, but the gold pin meant you had flown into space. It’s when you do. Young then left the group with sage advice, “Don’t talk about anything you don’t know anything about.” Got it. So basically shut our mouths.

When the old ones left the room, they once passed the new ones. Quite simply, the ancients were a different generation. They were veterans, test pilots and guys who had never worked with women or civilian graduate students. Beneath their spite, there was also perhaps a tinge of fear. The queue to ride the bird has become much longer; perhaps they would completely miss their chance.

Who are these guys anyway? Hell, half of them are civilians, wet behind their ears, fresh from their mother’s pacifier. They traded high marks and accolades, no life or death. The old people shook their heads. These fucking new guys. “The Fucking New Guy,” a military term for the unit’s newest grunt, seemed a perfect fit for the Class 8 Astronaut. Thus was born the class’s official nickname: TFNG. In good company, the TFNGs referred to themselves as “Thirty-Five New Guys”, but everyone knew what the term really meant.

After the meeting, Secretary Sylvia Salinas gave the New Guys their official NASA portraits and asked them to create signatures for the automatic pen machine. The agency would print thousands of autographed photos. Do thousands of people want our autograph? Ron wondered. It’s astronaut insurance, joked a veteran astronaut. If you die, your family will have something to sell. The joke did not cause laughter.

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