As I sat with my family Sunday, eating blueberry pancakes under piercing blue skies at the Katama Airfield — along with dozens of others outside the small restaurant there — it occurred to me that what makes this such a popular spot is our continual fascination with air flight. In an age of routine jet travel and near-routine orbital space missions, we still get a kick out of seeing small antique planes huff and puff along the bumpy grass airstrip and pull themselves up above South Beach, and then set down only a few yards away from us.
This fascination with (if not awe of) flying, struck me with greater authority the very next day with the news that Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, had died just one day before the 115th birthday of Amelia Earhart, the first lady of flight. The two of them essentially broke the gender barrier in air and space flight. Moreover, they are at least partially responsible for untold numbers of young girls deciding to go into some science-related field. It is because of these two legends in flight — along with others like them in other fields — that newspaper stories beginning with “The first woman to . . .” became routine.
Amelia Earhart paved the way for women in flight. She set many records but is best known for being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and, of course, her disappearance during an attempt to circumnavigate the globe in 1937.
Ms. Ride, a Stanford-educated physicist who got into the space program after answering a newspaper ad for astronauts, flew on the shuttle Challenger in 1983 and then again in 1984. That same spacecraft was lost along with its crew in a catastrophic explosion just after lift-off in 1986. Ms. Ride was the only person to sit on both panels investigating the Challenger accident and, later, the Columbia crash in 2003. She wrote five science books for children and started her own company, Sally Ride Science, which provides middle school children with science-oriented school programs. Her company also was the driving force behind mounting cameras on NASA’s twin Grail spacecraft, which made it possible for students to take their own pictures of the moon.
Sally Ride was also a living reminder of the heady days when NASA had the money and imagination for cutting-edge missions. Back then, astronauts were celebrities. Some of us were lucky enough to witness a launch in person — as I did in covering the Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous missions in the mid-1970s. We had the opportunity to meet astronauts Tom Stafford, Deke Slayton and Vance Brand before the Apollo-Soyuz launch. I remember thinking that these men seemed so calm, as if they were about to embark on a routine business trip, just days before they were to climb aboard one of the world’s most powerful rockets, the Saturn 1B, that would carry them in their Apollo module to dock with the Soviet Soyuz spacecraft in orbit above the Earth. They seemed a different breed; it was at that point that I understood what “the right stuff” meant. It also became perfectly understandable how someone like Walter Cronkite, who had seen just about everything in his long and distinguished reporting career, got so giddy over space shots and the people who participated in them.
Ms. Ride had that stuff. Even though she came after the glamorous Apollo flights to the moon, the early days of the shuttle program were filled with uncertainty and danger (as the Challenger and Columbia, sadly, would later demonstrate). In the 1970s, I visited the vehicle assembly building at Kennedy Space Center to do a preview story on this new generation of spacecraft that would make orbital space missions routine. As we were lifted to the top of the building to get a bird’s-eye view of the shuttle’s nose, I was told how hard this aircraft would be to land. It would “drop like a rock,” one of the engineers told me. And of course it would be crucial that its protective, tiled shield prevent it from burning up during descent. Looking back, it was clear that everyone was aware of the risks involved in even routine orbital missions.
It was during these early stages of perhaps the shuttle’s greatest uncertainties when Sally Ride became an astronaut. But like the others before and after her, she viewed risk as part of the job, when she thought about risk at all. What she wanted more than anything, she said, was simply to fly in space and be able to look down at Earth.
As we watched a Piper Cub set down (at a much gentler angle than the space shuttle’s) at Katama, I glanced at the bright red prop plane used to take people on air tours of the Vineyard. To an untrained eye such as mine, it looked like the red Lockheed Vega 5b flown by Amelia Earhart in crossing the Atlantic, or at least it was a similar color. And I wonder if it were not for these two pioneers, would this aeronautically perfect Sunday ever have taken place.