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How NASA’s astronaut class of 1978 changed the face of space exploration

When you look back on the long history of crewed spaceflight, one group stands out for its radical challenge to the conventional wisdom of who could become an astronaut. NASA’s astronaut class of 1978 saw not only its first women and people of color working as astronauts such as Sally Ride and Guy Bluford, but also the first Asian American astronaut, El Onizuka, the first Jewish American astronaut, Judy Resnik, and the first LGBT astronaut, once again Sally Ride.

A new book, The New Guys: The Historic Class of Astronauts That Broke Barriers and Changed the Face of Space Travel, chronicles the story of this class and its impact on both NASA and the wider world’s perceptions of who could be an astronaut. We spoke to the author, Meredith Bagby, about this remarkable group of people and how they changed the face of human spaceflight.

Breaking the mold

Throughout the 50s and 60s, NASA almost exclusively chose fighter pilots for its early human spaceflight program, Project Mercury. That meant that not only were astronaut groups like the famous Mercury Seven entirely composed of white men, but they also came from very similar military backgrounds.

There were early pioneers like the Mercury 13, a group of women who trained for spaceflight but never flew on a NASA mission, or the Black test pilots who applied but were passed over for astronaut training. But throughout this period, the face of American spaceflight remained firmly white and male.

Photo featuring the astronauts included in NASA's Project Mercury program
NASA’s first astronauts were (from left) Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Gordon Cooper, and Scott Carpenter — all white men NASA

This approach began to change with the passing of the Equal Right Act in 1972, which forbade discrimination based on sex or race and forced NASA to consider applications from a wider range of people. These changes resulted in the class of ’78: the 35 members of NASA Astronaut Group 8 who were colloquially known as the New Guys.

“This was the first time NASA hired women and people of color,” as astronauts, Bagby explained. “And that was a big deal.”

This group was different from previous classes in terms of background and approach as well. “Almost half of them were civilians. They weren’t part of the military,” Bagby said. “So for the first time, you had this big group of scientists coming in, and they had a different outlook than the military test pilots.”

With the arrival of the Space Shuttle, NASA missions had more room on missions for other crew members in addition to pilots. These extra places were given over to science researchers, called mission specialists, to realize the potential of scientific research performed in space. This difference in background came with a difference in political views. “If the test pilots were the ones who were fighting in Vietnam, then these guys were the ones protesting about Vietnam,” Bagby said. “So it was a totally different energy.”

Black astronauts from NASA's class of 1978
The first Black men selected by NASA as astronauts in the Class of 1978:Ronald E. McNair, left, Guion S. Bluford, and Frederick D. Gregory NASA

Even as mission specialists, astronauts had to achieve a very high level of fitness to be allowed to fly. For some of the NASA class of 78, like tennis ace Sally Ride or the athletic Kathy Sullivan, that presented little obstacle. But some of the other women had to train hard for the first time in their lives, in a culture where women were rarely encouraged to exercise. That was necessary for them to manage the physical rigors of working in space, doing tasks like spacewalks.

“Spacewalking is a very physical activity,” Bagby said. “Kathy Sullivan, who was the first American woman spacewalker and was also part of this class, is a fantastic athlete and I think that helped her become a good spacewalker. Because it’s really physical and grueling, and it takes forever. It’s basically construction in space.”

Another challenge for the class was dealing with the media, who were fascinated by the concept of women astronauts and often asked ridiculous and invasive questions. From being quizzed about their makeup and haircare routines to having to fend off inquiries about their sex lives, the women of the class had to learn to handle being in the national spotlight as well as the challenging aspects of their jobs.

Sally Ride during NASA's STS-7 mission.
Astronaut Sally K. Ride, STS-7 mission specialist, communicates with ground controllers from the flight deck of the Earth-orbiting Space Shuttle Challenger. NASA

One particularly thorny issue that continues to affect women today is the balancing of career and home life. Class member Anna Fisher was pregnant while training and went to space for the first time soon after giving birth to her first child, making her the first mother in space.

Particularly for mothers, an expectation still exists that women will always put their children first — which can be at odds with a career in space. “I think women still feel torn between family and career in a way that men don’t,” Bagby said. Then there’s the issue of the inherent risks of the job which they have to consider. “It’s also a big danger to take. If you’re the primary caretaker and you’re lost, it’s a big loss to the family.”

Houston, we’re not there yet

There are lessons about diversity among its astronauts which NASA is still learning. Even today, Black, Asian, Hispanic, and Indigenous American people are strikingly underrepresented among astronauts, and women are in the minority both in the astronaut corps and in NASA more broadly. Another area in which astronauts are finally diversifying is in terms of disability, with the European Space Agency recently naming its first disabled astronaut.

The impetus for diversifying astronauts is not only about a moral imperative for greater representation but also a way of meeting practical needs. Astronauts who have conditions that count as disabilities on Earth, such as amputees without legs, can be advantaged in space compared to others. And women, who are on average smaller and eat less than men, could be better suited to long-term space missions.

“Everyone thought that there was one type of person that could do well in space, and that it was strong men who were athletic and had the ‘right stuff’. But it’s just not true. Anybody can do well in space,” Bagby said. “We’re realizing that all these differences and diversities that we have are actually big strengths.”

The crew of NASA’s Artemis II mission (left to right): NASA astronauts Christina Hammock Koch, Reid Wiseman (seated), Victor Glover, and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Jeremy Hansen.
The crew of NASA’s Artemis II mission (left to right): NASA astronauts Christina Hammock Koch, Reid Wiseman (seated), Victor Glover, and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Jeremy Hansen. NASA

NASA has recently committed to landing the first woman and person of color on the moon as part of the Artemis program. Bagby linked that commitment to NASA acknowledging the protest movement of Black Americans in the 1960s who were frustrated about the government spending lavishly on the Apollo program while neglecting communities of color — exemplified in the Gil Scott-Heron spoken word poem Whitey On the Moon. “It’s answering this old wound, and getting really specific about the promise,” Bagby said.

The need for a diverse astronaut corps strikes at the heart of one of the biggest impulses for space exploration: to find a way to live on other planets, which may one day be a necessity. “If we’re going to learn how to live outside the Earth, we have to figure out how to get all of us there,” Bagby said.

With all the difficulties of sending humans into space, some people have argued that we shouldn’t even be trying. Instead, for locations like Mars, we should focus on robotic exploration, which is less expensive and far less risky to the people involved.

Even with the difficulties and the risks and the costs, however, Bagby maintains that there is something tremendously valuable and inspiring about seeing people travel to the stars. “I think it’s really worth it,” she said. “Watching a robot go to space is one thing, but watching a human go to space evokes a totally different set of emotions and aspirations.”

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Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
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