(With the passing of John Glenn, whom I never met, I thought I’d return to another great pioneer, Sally Ride, the first US woman in space. She died of pancreatic cancer at age 61 on July 23, 2012 at her La Jolla, Calif. home She joined NASA in late 1978 and soared into space on the space shuttle Challenger on June 18, 1983.)
Sally Ride died today at San Diego. I conducted the first interview with her when I was at the Clear Lake Daily Citizen. (I also interviewed Tom Wolfe when he had just finished “The Right Stuff” at the same time.)
Lou Wortham sent me. He was a former city editor for both the Houston Chronicle and Houston Post who got term limited out into the boondocks, namely Clear Lake City, just outside the Johnson Space Center in western Galveston County, Texas. I was his trusty Sancho Panza, at least one of three reporters, two of whom were young women he didn’t trust and couldn’t stand.
Wortham had a twisted old school journalist’s sense of humor, and proper place. Among my more mundane duties, he made me editor of the society and religion page. Really? Apparently, he did it just because he thought it was so frickin’ funny, he could laugh his as off every day.
Think ‘Front Page’ with Lou sitting at his desk growling in undertones about the Rotary Club president tool of a publisher out to subvert the press for lousy cash money. Lou was tenacious about the news, competitive the way they were back then. He loved beating the other papers every which way he could. Nothing satisfied him more than seeing one of our articles appear a few days later in the Chronicle or Post. We got those suckers again, he would yell with glee.
Somehow, Wortham got wind of the first woman in the astronaut program, arranged an interview and sent me over to the space center. He was impressed she was from Stanford, but wondered how she would fare among the macho space men in the program. He wanted to find out all about her including if she were butch.
Fair enough, over the long, flat road to the space center, a collection of research-looking buildings and huge mega-warehouses. They ushered me into a small book- and report-line office where I met Ms. Ride.
The conversation lasted 20-30 minutes and I would be curious to find a copy of the article. She considered herself a scientist among the air force pilots, but had been motivated from early youth to be an astronaut, she said. When the space program expanded its astronaut base to include six women, she applied and was accepted.
Ride said was just one member of the team. She felt a bit uncomfortable being singled out just because she was a woman, but also wanted to inspire young girls growing up with the example they could do anything, she said.
Ride was ruggedly attractive, a little nervous because it was her first official interview, and interesting enough. Not knowing the future, we were unaware she would be the first US woman in space on the seventh shuttle flight in June 1983. Oh well.
Wortham debriefed me when I returned with the all usual questions. Was she a troll? How smart was she? What da ya think? 30. Cool.
That’s about it for the tale. However, interestingly enough, not soon afterwards, I was dispatched to the scene of a local bookstore where one Tom frickin’ Wolfe was holding court. He had finished “The Right Stuff and was doing a book signing of some other more pedestrian effort, don;t even remember its name.
As always, Wolfe was dapper beyond belief with the trademark white suit, all white everything and some kind of a cocky hat. Of course, he was quite interesting. He also was quite eclectic. The crowd was – shall we say – sparse and we spoke for about 20 minutes.
The first major topic, as one might suspect, was about the space program and the men who made it. He was fascinated by the top flight attitude, the test pilot mentality of the men, as I recall just here just now for the first time in years. He liked their ladies for being so strong. I asked him a few questions about the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, because the Merry Pranksters once rolled through our part of town.
Major topic #2 was a bit of a surprise, or maybe shouldn’t have been. Wolfe went on in great, and individual, detail about the merits and faults of every Mexican restaurant within a 20-mile radius of Clear Lake City. He really was into that stuff. Really. I can take Mexican food or leave it, but Tom Wolfe thought the Tex-Mex stuff was so amazingly great, awesomeand so forth.
I rendered a few complimentary comments about his attire, which he thought was a bit much for the current midsummer mid-afternoon South Texas milieu. And so it went.
Wolfe is still alive, age 85, at least according to Wikipedia, but Ride, Sally Ride, rode off into the great beyond for the last time today. More power to her and the dream of mankind finding peace and progress in space despite the challenges on Earth. She is, as Sun Ra liked to say, traveling the spaceways, so to you girl, good speed.