HOUSTON -- Twenty years after becoming America's first woman in space, Sally Ride finds herself investigating yet another shuttle disaster -- a discouraging way to mark the anniversary of her history-making flight.
The former astronaut is the only person to take part in both the Challenger and Columbia accident inquiries and has seen all the space shuttle program's warts up close. Yet she is hopeful that whatever is broken within NASA can be fixed and that the shrunken fleet will -- and should -- fly again, possibly a year from now.
And even knowing all she knows from the investigation -- about decision-making errors and flawed inspections -- she'd fly the shuttle again if she were still in the astronaut corps.
"It's got a lot of good years left in it, but attention has to be paid to aging," Ride said after another long day of Columbia investigative work. Historically, NASA isn't used to operating old spacecraft, but in a time of tighter budgets for the space program, she believes the agency needs to do a better job.
In an interview before flying home to San Diego, Ride acknowledged it's depressing to spend the 20th anniversary of her flight deciphering the events that led to Columbia's destruction and the deaths of seven astronauts.
"But in another sense, it's rewarding because it's an opportunity to be part of the solution and part of the changes that will occur and will make the program better," she said.
Ride rocketed into orbit and into headlines on June 18, 1983, on Challenger. It was two decades after the Soviets had sent a woman into space, but Ride, a physicist, was the first American woman to go up. She beat out five female colleagues.
She returned to space a year later, again aboard Challenger, and was training for her third and final mission when the shuttle erupted in a fireball barely a minute into liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986.
Columbia was ending a mission when it shattered above Texas on Feb. 1 -- exactly 17 years and four days later.
A late appointment to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, the 52-year-old Ride sees definite parallels between NASA's two shuttle catastrophes -- "echoes" as she calls them.
Both flights, for instance, fell victim to miscommunication. For Challenger, it involved teleconferences and O-rings, for Columbia, e-mails and insulating foam.
"But these are two very, very different accidents at very different times and the organization is quite different," Ride said. "The echoes are there, but I don't think that's the overriding message of our investigation at all."
'Launches are risky'
She says it's possible that over the years, "a little less, little lower level of concern had crept in" for landings, versus launches.
"Everyone knows that launches are risky. Re-entries haven't seen that many problems. There's not rocket fuel exploding underneath the astronauts," she said. "It's an airplane, albeit a very unusual sort of amazing airplane. That's got a little more familiar feel to it. It lands on a runway. That's a little more familiar feel to it."
Since Ride's famous ride, 37 women have flown on space shuttles. That represents about 13 percent of the total number of shuttle travelers.
At present, women make up 21 percent of NASA's astronaut corps.
And women make up 28 percent of the shuttle casualty list.
Two women died aboard Challenger: Christa McAuliffe, the schoolteacher, and Judith Resnik, who had become the second American woman in space 1 1/2 years earlier.
Two women also died aboard Columbia: Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark.
Both crews were diverse, not just in gender but race and religion, too.
Ride pointed out that the lead flight director for Columbia's last mission was a woman. So was the head of the mission management team, who unfortunately rejected engineers' requests during the flight that Columbia be photographed by spy satellites for wing damage. The engineers were worried about the chunk of insulating foam that broke off the fuel tank during the mid-January launch and smashed into the wing.
Despite the poor decision-making and other underlying factors that contributed to both accidents, Ride says she would jump at the chance to rocket into orbit again -- if only she could skip all the months and years of training.
She's too busy these days with other things. Besides serving on the Columbia investigation board, she is a physics professor at the University of California at San Diego and runs the Sally Ride Science Club for girls through her company, Imaginary Lines Inc. The company's goal is to encourage elementary- and middle-school girls in science, math, engineering and technology.
Ride insists she would not be any more afraid to fly after what happened to Columbia. She recalls being nervous for her first launch and also surprised when "this unbelievable feeling of helplessness, like there was nothing I could do" washed over her at the moment of liftoff.
'Rockets are rockets'
Before Challenger and certainly before Columbia, "there was a real, pretty good understanding that things could go wrong."
"It's important to realize that rockets are rockets, and rockets are still risky technology and that's true of every type of rocket that we or any other country have ever built," she said. "Rockets don't work 100 percent of the time. They just don't."
Ride envisions NASA resuming shuttle flights possibly a year from now, but points out that no one expected the fleet to be grounded as long as the 2 1/2 years following the Challenger disaster.
"It just turns out that that's how long the technical fixes took, and I just don't have a good feel for how long it's going to take on this one," she said.
Ride was invited to join the Columbia accident board a month after the tragedy. The chairman, retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., wanted more Ph.D. scientists and the continuity that Ride brought from serving on the presidential commission that probed the Challenger explosion. She also provided a high-profile name to a panel of mostly little-known military men.
Her participation on the board has catapulted her back into the limelight. But it pales to the surge in publicity after she appeared in a commercial for Office Depot less than a year ago.
It's quite a turnaround for someone who used to avoid the news media. For years after her first flight, Ride was recognized everywhere she went, disliked the attention and kept as low a profile as possible, yearning to "live a normal life."
These days, she is more at home with the public.
"I think time brings that," she said, noting that her efforts to promote her science club for girls has meant "stepping out and being a role model and being very visible."
Ride will be very visible next weekend, celebrating the anniversary of her flight with 800 girls taking part in a super science festival organized by her company at Florida's Kennedy Space Center. All 800 will be there when she becomes the first woman inducted into the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame.
There are still times she wishes she hadn't been first. "It was a huge honor," she said. "On the other hand, it sure did complicate things. I'm the sort of person who likes to be able to just walk into the supermarket and not be recognized. I can do that most of the time now.
"A lot of people recognize the name. Very few recognize my face. That's very good," she said, laughing. "That is very good."
On the Net:
Columbia Accident Investigation Board: www.caib.us
Ride's Imaginary Lines: www.imaginarylinesinc.com