When we were best friends and high school classmates in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, Sally told me that she wanted to be famous, but she wanted to achieve that goal by winning a Nobel Prize. A ninth-grade science teacher had introduced her to physics and astronomy, and she intended to study the stars. After her retirement from NASA and academia, Sally, who died this past week at 61, turned her focus back to teachers — like the one she always credited with planting the seed that eventually got her to space. She hoped to motivate a new generation of teachers who might impart a love of science to their students.
It wasn’t until 1977, when she was completing her graduate work in physics at Stanford, that Sally spotted a notice in the university’s student newspaper announcing that NASA was recruiting young scientists — for the first time including women — to become astronauts. She knew instantly that this was what she wanted to do. I was thrilled, but not surprised, when she called early one morning in 1978 to tell me that she was one of six women selected.
Sally easily fitted into the mostly male, can-do engineering culture of NASA. It was a culture that valued level-headedness and good judgment; the operative slogan was “don’t screw up.”
Assigned to the team helping to design the space shuttle’s computer-operated mechanical arm, which would be used to deploy and recover satellites, Sally threw herself into the job and proved adept at manipulating the arm. That skill, as well as her coolness under pressure while assigned to a key job at Mission Control, impressed veteran astronaut Robert Crippen, who was to command the shuttle’s seventh flight, scheduled for the first half of 1983.
Before offering Sally a spot on Crippen’s crew, Christopher Kraft, director of Houston’s Johnson Space Center, warned her that she would become a historic figure and the focus of worldwide attention. “I think he wanted to give me a chance to back out,” she later recalled.
When I visited the space center several months before the flight, I watched her go from demanding sessions in a shuttle simulator — practicing for every possible mishap— to a photo shoot for the cover of Ms. magazine. Wearing a crisp blue flight suit, Sally rolled her eyes when a makeup artist applied blush and the photographer requested “a restless, smug half-smile.”