Space Center Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
by Rebecca Wright
San Antonio, Texas – 6 December 2002
questions in this transcript were asked during an oral history session
with Dr. Sally K. Ride. Dr. Ride has amended the answers for clarification
purposes. As a result, this transcript does not exactly match the
This oral history session today, with Dr. Sally Ride, is for the Johnson
Space Center Oral History Project. Today is December 6, 2002. It’s
being held in San Antonio, Texas. Interviewer is Rebecca Wright, assisted
by Sandra Johnson and Jennifer Ross-Nazzal. This is part two of Dr.
Ride’s oral history. The first part was conducted on October
22, 2002, focused on her days with the NASA Johnson Space Center.
Today’s session reflects her efforts with the space agency while
at NASA Headquarters, [Washington, D.C.]. After serving on the Rogers
Commission, you moved from Houston [Texas] to Washington, D.C., where
you were involved in strategic planning. Later you served as Assistant
Administrator of Exploration. Could you discuss with us those duties
and how you transitioned, then, from one job to the other, and what
you were doing while you were at Headquarters.
One was a natural outgrowth of the other. When I started at Headquarters,
I was the Assistant Administrator for Long-Range and Strategic Planning.
No one was quite sure what this meant—no one had held that position
before—so my staff and I spent some time defining our role.
We started by reviewing all the studies that had been done, either
by NASA or for NASA, over the previous ten years. We wanted to see
what was lying on the shelf already, what recommendations had been
made, what consistencies there were in the recommendations, and whether
the recommendations had been followed. That give us the context to
begin NASA’s planning activities.
After we had catalogued and reviewed previous studies, we discussed
them with the chairs of committees that had produced each one. Then,
we began a process of long-range planning, which evolved into a strategic
planning process for all of NASA. We worked with every Center, contacted
every Center director, had each Center director identify two or three
people at their Center to work directly with us and to work with their
Center, to start a bottoms-up strategic planning process throughout
Each of the Center representatives organized a process at their Center,
to involve employees there in a discussion of NASA’s long-range
objectives. Our initial focus was, “What should NASA’s
goal—or goals—be over the coming decade?” We began
that broadly to encourage a variety of ideas and encourage people
to brainstorm and discuss their view of the future of the U.S. space
program and their view of what “leadership in space” meant.
That dialogue went on at every NASA Center, then results were presented
to the group I chaired. Over the course of many months, we distilled
the ideas down to four initiatives. We then evaluated and discussed
those initiatives: robotic exploration of the solar system, “Mission
to Planet Earth,” a permanent lunar outpost, and human exploration
We evaluated each of the initiatives in our final report and made
recommendations on each. The whole process culminated in a report
called “NASA Leadership and America’s Future in Space:
A Report to the Administrator.”
At the culmination of that report, it was very obvious to us that
NASA didn’t have an organization that was set up either to continually
refine the strategic planning process or to take a forward-looking
approach to human exploration. The Office of Exploration was set up
to look at long-range exploration initiatives and produce relevant
studies on human exploration—whether of the Moon or of Mars.
After the first round of our strategic planning process was complete,
I became the first Director of the Office of Exploration.
How was your report received by colleagues?
It was received very well. We testified before Congress, and we briefed
it widely to the National Research Council, the President’s
Science Advisor, and a variety of other groups.
There were several things that came out of it. One was NASA’s
Mission to Planet Earth; another was the Office of Exploration. It
also resulted in more emphasis on long-range exploration within the
Were you able to help implement any of those plans and initiatives,
or was your report issued about the time that you were getting ready
to leave the agency?
I was able to follow those initiatives for a while. I spent time with
the technology division, working with them to understand what our
report meant to them. And I worked quite a bit with Mission to Planet
But I left the agency shortly thereafter. Most work that I did after
the report was issued was setting up the Office of Exploration.
You returned to Stanford [University, Stanford, California] after
you left the agency, and since then you’ve been active in a
number of areas. We’d like to talk to you about some of those
areas, but before we do, we would like to know if you could possibly
tell us what your most challenging milestone was while you were working
with the space program.
I think my biggest challenge was just trying to breathe right after
the engines ignited on my first launch! It’s hard to say what
my most challenging milestone was. The space program is wonderful
in that it is a series of challenges and a series of very interesting
and very rewarding experiences.
Do you find it difficult to pick out one that you would consider the
most significant accomplishment that you made while you were at NASA?
Is there something you would like to consider that you left as a legacy
for others to see?
It is, because I think it depends on the way that you interpret that
question. Certainly my most significant legacy will be that I was
the first American woman to go into space. That’s very rewarding
for me. And the more time that passes, the more I appreciate that.
But some of things that I’m very proud of are my work on the
robot arm, my work as a CapCom [Capsule Communicator], of course my
two spaceflights, and the report that I did for NASA Headquarters.
As I mentioned, you went back to Stanford and got very active, of
course, working there. You also were very active in a number of other
areas, a lot of them dealing with children. We’d like you to
comment on some of those. For instance, KidSat. Can you tell us how
you got involved with that?
EarthKam, then called KidSat, started when I was a physics professor
at University of California, San Diego [La Jolla, California]. I was
talking with some colleagues at [NASA] JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
Pasadena, California]. We came up with the idea of putting a camera
on board the Space Shuttle, aimed at Earth, that could be controlled
by middle-school kids from their classrooms.
The moment we hit on the idea, we knew that it was a good one. It
combined just the “gee whiz” of the space program with
the actual hands-on involvement for the kids. We described it as,
“Giving Kids a Piece of the Space Program,” because it
allowed them to feel like they were participating in a very real way.
It was their camera; it was on board the Space Shuttle, and they were
the ones operating it and controlling it.
We engaged undergraduates at UCSD to translate the “NASA-ese”
of mission control and the Space Shuttle for the kids, and then send
the kids’ commands up to the Space Shuttle.
It’s a tremendous program. The camera eventually moved from
the Shuttle to the Space Station, and now it’s called ISS [International
Space Station] EarthKam. The program has been around now for several
years, and it’s really making an impact.
You’ve also written a number of science books for children.
Could you share with us how you were able to do that?
I wrote the first one shortly after my second flight. It was called
To Space and Back, and it’s about what it’s like
to go on a Space Shuttle flight. I wanted to write it for kids—ten-,
eleven-, twelve-, thirteen-, fourteen-year-old kids—because
I’d been doing a lot of speaking, and it was really obvious
that kids are fascinated by the space program. They love hearing about
astronauts, about launch, about weightlessness. The book is a good
way to encourage their interest in science and teach them a little
bit while they’re not looking.
I got together with an old friend from high school, who was a writer,
and she and I co-authored that book. It came out in 1986. A few years
after I left NASA, a different publisher called me up out of the blue
and asked me to do another book for kids—this one on the Voyager
spacecraft. I liked the idea and began collaborating with a different
co-author, also an old friend from childhood, on that book for Random
House, She and I have since written three books with a fourth one
is coming out in fall of ’03. All are for kids around middle-school
age: The Voyager, The Third Planet: Exploring Earth from
Space, and The Mystery of Mars. The one that’s
due out in 2003 is called Exploring the Solar System.
Speaking of new ways to inform and educate, you became part of a Space.com
era. How did this opportunity come about?
That was really by chance. I was at University of California, San
Diego, teaching a physics course. It was spring of 1999. Lou Dobbs
retired from CNN [Cable News Network] and announced out of the blue
that he was starting Space.com.
I was fascinated with the idea and talked to him find out more about
it. He said, “If you’re interested, and you want to hear
more about it, why don’t you come meet with me next time you’re
in New York, [New York].”
I did. As it turned out, I was going to New York three or four weeks
later. The more that I talked to him, the more I liked the idea behind
it. The vision at the time was to create a website that catered to
everyone who had an interest in space—for whatever reason. It
would be fore kids interested in the space program, people who loved
science fiction, the commercial aerospace community—everyone
who had an interest.
I loved the idea of it because I knew, living out in California, how
hard it was to find out what was going on back in Houston and back
at KSC [Kennedy Space Center, Florida]. Just try to do that reading
your local newspaper! You just can’t keep up with the space
program. So, having a website where you can just log on and get all
the information about where was the Shuttle on its way to the pad,
or what were the astronauts doing in orbit that day, seemed like a
really good idea to me. He basically convinced me to join the company.
How long were you with the company?
I was with the company for about a year and a half. I didn’t
move to New York. I was commuting—staying in a hotel during
the week to work there. I joined the Board of Directors right away
and was initially the Executive Vice President for Strategic Planning.
Shortly thereafter, I became the president of the company.
That’s quite a difference of strategic planning for NASA. Now
you’re doing it for a website.
It was quite different.
Put some of that same strategy into the strategic planning.
Why did you leave?
I left for a variety of reasons, actually. One was that I had only
taken temporary leave from the university and wanted to get back to
it. (I had retained my position at the university.) Also, New York
City is a long way from San Diego, where I live; I did not want to
move from San Diego! I was doing a lot of commuting, and did not want
to move to New York. And it was pretty clear that Space.com was not
going to be opening a West Coast office anytime soon.
I had wanted to get back to teaching and research, but the last couple
months that I was there, I started thinking more and more about doing
something that was focused more on girls and education than Space.com
was. I started talking with my friends and several of us decided to
form Imaginary Lines, Inc. That became part of the impetus to leave
Space.com to get back out to California and start up Imaginary Lines.
Tell us about Imaginary Lines. We’re all very interested in
how that moved from an idea into the reality that it is today.
The motivation behind it grew out of the lives of the founders. Most
of us are women who are either scientists or engineers and grew up
as girls interested in science. We went through college in a minority
in our science or engineering classes, then were even more in the
minority when we entered the professional world of science and engineering.
I had spent a lot of time talking with groups of girls and groups
of high school students, college women, and professional women, and
had become very attuned to their interests and needs.
We were all very well aware of the issues and were particularly struck
by the realization that in elementary school there are the same number
of girls interested in math and science as boys, but starting in middle
school, that starts to change. Girls move away from science and math
in numbers greater than boys do—but not because they’re
not good at it and not because they’re not interested in it.
This happens for a variety of reasons, most cultural or societal.
It might not be cool for a girl to be the best one in the math class.
A girl who says she wants to be a rocket scientist might get a different
reaction from friends and teachers than a boy who says he wants to
be a rocket scientist.
There are still lingering stereotypes—not nearly what they were
in the 1970s and 80s, but, they’re still there. When you turn
on the TV, any engineers you see are apt to be male, not female. When
you open the newspaper, you read about male engineers, not female
As a result, twelve-year-old girls don’t really think of those
areas as possible careers. We thought that there was an opportunity
here, because coming out of elementary school, lots and lots of girls
like science and math. We thought if we could capture that enthusiasm,
that fascination, before they lose it, then maybe we could inoculate
them against some of the stereotypes and keep more of them in the
We thought the key to that was to create science-related events, programs,
and activities that they would think were fun, that they’d want
to go to with their friends, and that they’d think were cool.
We wanted to show the girls that there are lots of other girls like
them who have these interests and introduce them to women engineers
and scientists who love what they do, and put a female face on those
That was the philosophy behind Imaginary Lines. We think that we’ve
really tapped into something. We’re getting a great reaction
to our events and activities, both from the girls and from their parents.
We think that the time is right for this.
How long have you had Imaginary Lines operating?
It was formed in early 2001. We got our first funding in September
of 2001, so it’s just a little bit over a year that we’ve
been offering programs and events. We did our first Science Festival,
for example, a year ago October.
A couple of decades ago you were named in the news media as a role
model for young women, and now you’ve stepped into that full
action. Was there something just recently that helped you move even
further into this role, or [did you] just feel like the timing was
right to do this?
The timing was right. There wasn’t any one specific thing that
triggered it. Maybe I had just lived long enough. I thought that this
was something that was really worth using my name and using the visibility
that I could bring to it. It felt worthwhile. When we started seeing
the reaction of girls and their parents to our programs, it started
feeding on itself, and we drew our energy and encouragement from them.
When we started the company, there were a lot of people that we talked
to, a lot of people who said, “This is not a business. There
aren’t any girls interested in math and science. Where are you
going to find people to come to your festivals? Where are you going
to find these girls? All you need to do is look around the workforce.
There aren’t very many women in engineering, so there can’t
be many girls who are interested in math.”
We said, “That’s not right. We know that’s wrong.”
So we’ve taken some pleasure in proving them wrong.
And you’ve given them a tangible person to touch, whereas before
it was just an image. So they can do that. It’s got to be very
rewarding for you to be able to feel the excitement from those girls.
It’s very rewarding to feel their excitement and to see their
reaction to the women professionals we bring to the festivals. One
of the things we’re trying to do is raise the visibility of
other women scientists and engineers on a local, personal level for
these girls, and then on regional and national levels, too. We want
to make the world in general, and twelve-year-old girls in particular,
aware of the women who are actively involved in science and engineering.
Your life certainly is full of balancing education and advancement
and enrichment for young girls, and it sure keeps you busy from moment
A little too busy.
And what a challenge, from talking to students on a college level,
with physics, and then coming back and talking to elementary school
students on a level that they can talk, too.
You’d be surprised. [Laughter]
Before we finish today, I was going to ask Sandra and Jennifer if
they had any other questions that we hadn’t had a chance to
ask you while we had you in these sessions.
I had a question. When you went out to Headquarters, what was it like
working out there? And could tell us how different it was from working
at JSC? Can you make some comparisons between the two?
Not on tape. [Laughter]
Maybe a different question. We were talking with an astronaut earlier
this week who kept referring to how the astronaut corps changed over
time, from when he started in 1978. He was talking about how, in the
beginning of the Space Shuttle program, astronauts, in particular,
were very involved in all the different processes, and working with
the contractors. I’m wondering if it changed at all by the time
that you had gone up on your second mission, and [if] you could talk
It was starting to change by the time I went up on my second mission.
It was definitely changing by the time I left NASA, or even by the
time of the Challenger accident. That was the period of transition.
When my group came in in 1978, there was a lot of work still to be
done with the contractors on the Space Shuttle itself, everything
from the testing of the main engines to the developing of procedures—the
malfunction procedures, the abort procedures, the Remote Manipulator
System procedures. Mission control had never controlled a Space Shuttle
flight, so all the procedures, including CapComs working with flight
directors was in the process of being worked out.
We were heavily involved in all those things—there was a lot
of work for the astronaut corps to do. I spent over a year as one
of two or three astronauts working on the robot arm. Then, as time
went on, the robot arm was developed, tested, and working. All the
procedures had been developed, and the arm had flown in space several
times, so there was less work for the astronaut corps to be involved
in between missions. There were also more astronauts being brought
into the astronaut corps—so there were both fewer tasks and
more people to accomplish the tasks remaining.
The astronaut corps was slowly getting larger, and now it’s
much larger than it was. I think when I was there it was around 100,
maybe a little bit less. I’m not sure what it is now, but it’s
around 140, 150, which is significantly larger. So fewer technical
jobs that really need doing and more astronauts. We could see things
changing by the time I left.
Do you think it was detrimental to the corps if the astronauts weren’t
as involved in the Space Shuttle Program?
That’s a good question. I’m probably not in a position
to answer that, just because I wasn’t in the corps once that
transition had been completed. I benefited from the on-the-job training
and getting deeply involved in not one, but a few different projects.
So I don’t know how the corps is different now, with astronauts
coming not having that same experience.
I don’t think so today. Thanks.
Is there anything else that you would like to add about your NASA
career, things that we haven’t covered? We’ve tried to
cover your missions and experiments and different types of experience,
but didn’t know if there was anything else that we didn’t
touch on that you would like to talk about. Especially any kind of—some
personal sacrifices. We did talk about your private life sometimes
being talked about in the press. I didn’t know if there was
other sacrifices that you had made, or maybe you had wanted to do
something other than what NASA pulled you into, but yet you—
Are you kidding? [Laughter] No, I think I’d only add one thing
that I don’t think we touched on this last time. There was one
person who was very important to me at JSC, and it was Carolyn [L.]
Huntoon. When I was going through the application process, Carolyn
was on the selection committee. At the time, she was a Ph.D. biochemist
in charge of a small group, but was the highest-ranking technical
woman at JSC—therefore deemed to be the expert on everything
related to women at JSC. She was the only woman on the selection committee,
and it was a large selection committee. Once we arrived, she became
almost the de facto liaison to all of the women astronauts; she became
a very good friend to all of us and a very important person—especially
in helping us steer our way through the first couple of years that
we were there.
If we ever had any problems, we all knew that we could call Carolyn,
and we did! This was even as she was rising up through the ranks at
JSC and becoming a more and more important person. She was always
the person that we could call, and she would always help us solve
any problem, no matter how small.
So she’s one of the very few people, that I think I owe my career
to. She had a long and distinguished career at NASA that had an unfortunate
end. If you haven’t talked to her yet, you definitely should.
We have, and she’s mentioned as well that—we were talking
about the selection committee and her opportunity to be on there when
women were made part of the system.
I would hate to think what it would have been like for the six women
in our class if she hadn’t been there before us, been part of
the selection committee, and then been there for us once we arrived.
She made our lives much, much easier.
That’s good. I’m sure she’ll be glad to hear that
We’ll conclude for the day. Thank you so much, again, for taking
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