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JOHNSON SPACE CENTER

This is the hero factory. In this network of squat gray bunkers set apart from downtown Houston by a freeway, a side road and two speed traps, the likes of Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong were introduced to the world and transformed from men into legends. Today's reusable space shuttle may be less exotic than the old space capsules; still, as NASA demonstrated on one steamy Texas afternoon a few weeks ago, it can still make an astronaut into a household name. Case in point: Sally Kristen Ride, mission specialist on this week's scheduled flight of the shuttle Challenger and the first American woman in space.

"This mission has a lot of historic firsts," NASA spokesman John Lawrence coyly announced as the session began. But the television crews and tourists had not convened to hear about Indonesia's new communications satellite, or the radish seed experiment designed by two Cal Tech students and placed on the shuttle by the largesse of movie wizard Steven Spielberg. All eyes brushed past shuttle commander Robert Crippen, Capt. Rick Hauck and crew members John Fabian and Norm Thagard. Instead, they focused on Ride, 32, the living proof that the Brotherhood of the Right Stuff is now admitting sisters.

No other astronaut was ever asked questions like these: Will the flight affect your reproductive organs? The answer, delivered with some asperity: "There's no evidence of that." Do you weep when things go wrong on the job? Retort: "How come nobody ever asks Rick those questions?" Will you become a mother? First an attempt at evasion, then a firm smile: "You notice I'm not answering." In an hour of interrogation that is by turns intelligent, inane and almost insulting, Ride remains calm, unrattled and as laconic as the lean, tough fighter jockeys who surround her. "It may be too bad that our society isn't further along and that this is such a big deal," she reflects.

No American ever had more of the makings of an astronaut than Sally Ride. A California teenage tennis champion who flirted with turning pro, she started college at Swarthmore and transferred to Stanford. She earned two bachelor's degrees: English, because Shakespeare intrigued her; physics, because lasers fascinated her. As she soars through the empyrean, television commentators will make her résumé familiar to the world: Ph.D., astrophysics, Stanford. Astronaut training, 1978. Capsule communicator—the crucially important link between Mission Control and spacecraft—for shuttles 2 and 3. She married astronaut Steve Hawley, 32, last July. She flew her own plane to the wedding at his parents' home in Kansas.

This much is known of her life, but much more is unknown—and she aims to keep it that way. Ride and Hawley (who is scheduled to fly next March) avoid appearing together in public. They bar the press from their home in a suburban development near NASA. Sally Ride is not the sort of person about whom anecdotes cluster. She is an indifferent housekeeper—a genetic inheritance, perhaps, from an insouciant, good-humored mother who allowed her daughters to buy a collie only after carpeting the house in collie colors to make the dog's shedding less obvious. She is certainly a remarkable athlete. When a high school science teacher once attempted to demonstrate the difference between resting pulse and exercising pulse by measuring Sally's heart rate before and after she ran around the campus, the two rates were almost identical. She is also not without quirks—she firmly believes that Anacin tablets go down more easily when the little arrow imprinted on them is pointed toward the back of the throat. That superstition Sally laughingly ascribes to overexposure to the humanities while in college.

Ride considers herself an astronaut and a scientist—and she has little use for reporters who try to transform her into a celebrity. "They seem to ask the same stupid questions," her sister, Karen, observes. "Sally has an obvious impatience for that."

But she is sporting; like every astronaut NASA shoots into the ether, she meets the press. The scene is a spare conference room into which she is ushered by a NASA public affairs officer, whose job it is to time each encounter to precisely 20 minutes. Physically, Ride matches the image of the astronaut exactly: well conditioned, well groomed, simultaneously stylish and businesslike. Self-assurance and good humor hang like an aura around her. "One thing I probably share with everyone else in the astronaut office is composure," she says unselfconsciously. Sally entered training in 1978, along with five other women—NASA's first female astronauts. Since then, two more women have been added to the current corps of 78. "We're really all very similar," Ride says. "We're all people who are dedicated to the space program and who really want to fly in the space shuttle. That's a common characteristic that we all have that transcends the different backgrounds."

Sally Ride's background is affluent, cultured—and a feminist's dream. "My parents must have done a great job," she muses. "Anytime I wanted to pursue something that they weren't familiar with, that was not part of their lifestyle, they let me go ahead and do it. Tennis was an example; so was going into science. I think they were kind of glad when I went into the astronaut program, because that was something they could understand. Astrophysics they had trouble with."

Half a continent away, in Encino, Calif., Joyce Ride rises early to catch her daughter on the CBS Morning News—where Diane Sawyer asks Sally to demonstrate the new candy-striped privacy curtain that NASA has installed over the shuttle's vacuum toilet. By 10 a.m. the celebrity's mother has already fielded phone calls from several reporters and an author of children's books who plans to transform her daughter's life story into an inspiration for American youth. In this spacious ranch house two blocks off sprawling Ventura Boulevard, Joyce and her husband, Dale, raised two daughters—an astronaut and a Presbyterian minister who works with California churches to expand the hiring of women pastors. Joyce, like her husband, is a Presbyterian elder—still a significant accomplishment for a woman even in the modern church. When she isn't doing church work—or serving as a counselor at the women's county jail—Joyce tries to explain to the world what she and her husband did right.

"In a way you could look at it as neglect," she laughs. "Dale and I simply forgot to tell them that there were things they couldn't do. But I think if it had occurred to us to tell them, we would have refrained." Friends agree that Sally grew up free of sexual stereotypes. Her sister, the Rev. Karen Ride Scott—known universally by her childhood nickname, "Bear"—remembers, "When the kids played baseball or football out in the streets, Sally was always the best. When they chose up sides, Sally was always the first to be chosen. She was the only girl who was acceptable to the boys."

Her father, then an American government professor and presently assistant to the superintendent of Santa Monica College, took a sabbatical year when Sally was 10. Tutored by her parents as they traveled through Europe, she was moved half a grade ahead of her class on her return. Sally's mother, the daughter of a man who left his Norwegian immigrant parents' Minnesota farm to make a fortune with a chain of movie theaters and bowling alleys, says that she taught her daughters to excel, not to conform. "Sally would probably be teaching English literature if I were a molder of children," says her mother, "but I do not believe in molding children." One exception: When Sally was 12, Joyce and Dale successfully distracted her from her dream of a pro football career by encouraging her love of tennis.

At Stanford—where she transferred, according to roommate Molly Tyson, because Swarthmore's Pennsylvania climate was too snowy and its tennis team not competitive enough—Ride was a standout athlete, and a student to whom A's came with monotonous regularity. "She wasn't one of those people who had to study all the time," Tyson recalls. "She's a problem solver who approached courses by saying, 'Here's an interesting problem. Let's get to the bottom of it.' " Tyson remembers Sally as a relentlessly well-adjusted ail-American student. "She would go into and out of health food phases," Tyson remembers. "She would also go into and out of Big Mac phases."

The boys in Sally's childhood chose her for their teams—and the men in her career have followed suit. "I was offered the opportunity to say who I thought ought to be on the flight," says mission commander Crippen. "I submitted a list of names and all of my crew consist of those names." Crippen, 45, is no ardent feminist. A Navy captain, he bridles at the thought of women in combat: The words "gals" and "ladies" come more easily to his tongue than "women." Still, he never thought twice about choosing Sally Ride for his crew. His reasons were crisply professional: Ride and John Fabian helped design the mechanical arm that will be used in the mission's major tasks; the pair are considered NASA's most skilled operators of the delicate mechanism. "I wanted people who knew the arm well," says Crippen. "Sally and John were experts. I wanted a competent engineer who was cool under stress. Sally had demonstrated that talent. Sally also has a pleasing personality that will fit in with the group."

Sally says that she hasn't encountered any such problems at NASA, but her mother says she's seen plenty of male chauvinism aimed her daughter's way. "Johnny Carson made what he considered to be a joke," Joyce recalls, "that the shuttle launch was being postponed until Sally Ride could find the purse to match her shoes. There are a lot of people waiting for her to fail."

In contrast, after a year of working with her the four hardened military men who will be with her in space have started to sound like Alan Alda. "I think women ought to be able to do whatever they want to do," says her fellow mission specialist, the taciturn Air Force Col. John Fabian. Physician Norm Thagard talks enthusiastically of the day when "the role of females in the population will change," and NASA will be able to recruit more women. Says pilot Rick Hauck, "I have never seen any instance of what you might call sexist attitudes in our office." Even Bob Crippen, the grand old man of the astronaut program, is cleaning up his linguistic act. "Because of the perception among other people," he admits, "I find it's better if I refer to Sally as a woman—even though I still think she's a lady."

When she takes off for space, Sally Ride may be the only American who isn't affected in one way or another by the fact that she is demolishing a powerful gender barrier. "I honestly don't have time to think about it," she says. She may enter the history books, and she may be adopted as a symbol or a role model, or a hero or a villain, by the feminists and chauvinists of the world, but Ride insists that she will still see herself only one way—as an astronaut. "I came into this because I wanted to fly in space," she says. "My intention after the flight is to come back to the astronaut office and get back in line and try and fly again. I'd like to do it as many times as NASA will let me."