Reviewed by: Douglas G. Adler
Title: The Six: The Untold Story of America’s First Women Astronauts
Author: Loren Grush
Date: September 2023
Retail Price: $32.50/$16.99
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On January 16, 1978 NASA announced the composition of the 8th group of astronauts selected to fly the then-untested space shuttle. The group of 35 people included the first Jewish astronauts, the first African-American astronauts, the first Asian-American astronauts, and the first American female astronauts.
The Six: The Untold Story of America’s First Women Astronauts focuses on the six women in Group 8—Anna Fisher, Shannon Lucid, Judy Resnick, Sally Ride, Margaret Rhea Seddon, and Kathryn Sullivan. All six were a new breed of astronaut, so-called “Mission Specialists.” Mission Specialists often had a scientific or engineering background and were primarily used to conduct experiments, launch satellites, and perform spacewalks on orbit (as opposed to the Commanders and Pilots who actually flew the space shuttle to and from orbit).
The book unfolds in a very straightforward manner and largely follows the playbook of most astronaut biographies and autobiographies when telling the story of “The Six”: early life, interest in the space program, application, the triumph of acceptance into the astronaut corps, the interminable wait to fly an actual mission, and the satisfaction of finally launching into space on one or more shuttle flights.
Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, is the centerpiece of the book. Her story dominates and permeates the story of the other five women. Ride attained worldwide fame after her flight aboard Challenger during STS-7 in 1983. Ride was preceded into space by Soviet female Cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova (who flew aboard Vostok 6 in 1963) and Svetlana Savitskaya (who flew on the Soyuz T-7/T-5 mission in 1982 and again, after Ride’s first flight, on the Soyuz T-12 mission in 1984). The other members of “The Six” were variously jealous of Ride for going first and relieved that they did not have to live in the glare of the media spotlight Ride was subjected to. Grush portrays Ride in a complex manner: she was an inspiration to millions worldwide, but she was uncomfortable with the intense media scrutiny she was subjected to and spent much of her time at NASA living a double life, as she was gay but had not revealed this to the public. Ride was still married to fellow Group 8 astronaut Steve Hawley, who she subsequently divorced, while she was romantically involved with another woman.
Beyond Ride, Resnick is the astronaut who received the most attention from Grush in “The Six” (although all of the women are highlighted at various times, the focus of the book shifts back and forth between them). The story of Resnick, doomed to fly aboard the ill-fated Challenger mission STS-51-L (which took the life of all 7 astronauts aboard) is particularly gripping, is presented in a great deal of detail, and makes for some of the most interesting reading in the book. Resnick is presented in an extremely positive light, and her death shook “The Six” to their core, driving home that flying into space will always carry extreme risk.
Readers looking for tales of the women triumphing over flagrant male chauvinism will likely be disappointed: NASA was, and remains, an extremely progressive organization. All six of the women flew in space. “The Six” were welcomed into the astronaut ranks and all of them had extremely impressive careers at the space agency and afterwards. NASA worked extremely hard to accommodate and create opportunities for “The Six” and the other women astronauts that followed.
Although the book purports to tell the “untold story” of “The Six,” much of the material in the book has been covered in prior works. The New Guys: The Historic Class of Astronauts That Broke Barriers and Changed the Face of Space Travel by Meredith Bagby (2022), Sally Ride by Lynn Sherr (2014), and Before Lift-off: The Making of a Space Shuttle Crew by Henry Cooper (1987), among others, contain significant overlap with The Six.
Unlike many astronaut bios, The Six is light on technical details and NASA jargon. Whereas Before Lift-off does a deep dive on Sally Ride’s mastery of the shuttle’s Remote Manipulator Arm, the technical details of learning to operate the shuttle’s systems, and Ride’s long period of simulator training in preparation for STS-7, The Six is by and large content to focus on the personal stories of the female astronauts and how their time at NASA affected them and their families. Interestingly, the book largely ends with the death of Resnick and how the loss of the Challenger affected the other members of “The Six,” whereas The New Guys devotes extensive space to the accident, its aftermath, the recovery of the astronaut’s remains, and how the rest of Group 8, men and women, were able to move forward in the wake of the tragedy.
Overall The Six makes for an interesting read. These women broke new ground and were an inspiration for people around the globe. The Six also makes it clear that, male or female, being a NASA astronaut is a complex and challenging job that comes with both enormous benefits and unavoidable risks.
© 2023 Douglas G. Adler