In two months, on May 26, astronaut Sally Ride will turn 60. A month after that, the vehicle that propelled Ride into space -- the Shuttle -- is scheduled for its final flight (June 28). And next year, the private company Virgin Galactic Airways is supposed to begin taking tourists into suborbital space.
I had a chance to interview Ride, a true space legend, a while back. On June 18, 1983, she rode the Shuttle Challenger into the history books, becoming the first American woman into space. In 1984 she flew again, and again aboard Challenger. Two years later that spacecraft exploded 73 seconds into flight, killing a crew of seven and hammering home the dangers of space flight.
Ride, of course, has become a role model since retiring from NASA. In 2001 she started her own company, Sally Ride Science, to help inspire girls to pursue science and math. For the record, Ride doesn't rule out the possibility of going into space again, but she is also cautious on the subject of private space tourism.
JC: Because you were the first American woman into space, are you a role model for girls?
SR: I didn't go into it to be a role model. But I think it's really important for little girls growing up, and young women, to have role models in every walk of life. So from that point of view, I'm proud to be a role model.
JC: Tell me where you were when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969?
SR: I remember that day vividly. I think everybody over 10 years old remembers it. I'm from California. I was actually playing in a tennis tournament in Delaware--I was a pretty good player in high school. I was staying with a family that summer that belonged to the country club where the tournament was being held. The family, the other person that was there with me, and I stayed up to watch it.
JC: At that moment, did you ever think you would get to go into space?
SR: It never occurred to me that I could. But if you would have asked me if I wanted to, I would have jumped at the chance! But, no, I never thought it was a possibility.
JC: Will you ever go back into space?
SR: My first flight was in 1983, my second in 1984. I was just a few months into training for my third at the time of the Challenger accident. I just might follow the John Glenn model and give them a call in 20 years or so. I left NASA several years ago, so right now I'm not eligible. But you never know!
JC: What do you think about private space tourism efforts?
SR: I think eventually private enterprise will be able to send people into space, but I suspect that initially it's going to have to be done with NASA's help. I could be wrong. I could be one of the old fogies! Rocket science is tough, and rockets have a way of failing. It happens. A company has to be willing to bear the risk of its rocket failing. It's a very large capital investment, and a very large risk. Whether it's going to be a consortium or one entity that's going to be willing to step forward remains to be seen.
JC: If a small rocket company has a failure, will it dramatically impact space tourism?
SR: I think so. You can picture pretty easily if there were a paying passenger aboard a rocket that failed, like the Challenger failed. Certainly it would be a tragedy, and a tragedy for the company. They would have a very hard time recovering from it.