The New Guys
“Bagby’s immaculate research, coupled with her keen sense for real-life character development and dramatic arcs, makes for a fascinating and surprisingly quick read on a forgotten era of outer space exploration.”
On April 9, 1959, America’s entry into the space race began with the introduction of Astronaut Group 1, better known as the Mercury Seven. They were instant superstars, embraced as our best, brightest, and bravest. New astronaut groups would follow in the coming years, flying missions that ultimately led to the moon and back. But as the American space program expanded throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s, each new class of astronauts had a single commonality. Outer space was the exclusive domain of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant men.
Social turbulence demanded change. Why should the United States continue to send men to the moon when there was so much that needed to be done on Earth? Moreover, why should a multi-billion-dollar operation funded by taxpayer money be an exclusive club?
It took NASA more time than it should have to catch up, but that long-overdue change finally arrived on January 6, 1978, with the public début of Astronaut Group 8. Our new best, brightest, and bravest were now a demographic that looked like the rest of the country. They were African Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans, and, most radical of all, women. Group 8 would fly a different kind of spacecraft, a reusable shuttle that would roar into the heavens strapped onto a rocket, and then fly back home like an airplane.
Meredith Bagby digs deep into the world of these unlikely social pioneers in The New Guys: The Historic Class of Astronauts That Broke Barriers and Changed the Face of Space Travel. Filled with human drama and comedy, and haunted by NASA’s worst moments, The New Guys is both compelling and frustrating. Bagby delivers a lot, but at 402 pages the book is too short. The story of Astronaut Group 8 and the space shuttle program just can’t be confined. (Endnotes take up another one hundred pages.)
The New Guys opens with a lively scene that, to paraphrase President Kennedy, shows the space program of old passing its torch to a new generation. It’s a warm spring day in 1977, shortly after NASA’s announcement that the upcoming Space Shuttle program is looking for a different kind of astronaut. Judy Resnick, armed with a combination of unlimited ambition, a PhD in electrical engineering, and a whole lot of bravado, heads straight to the office of Michael Collins, Apollo 11’s command module pilot and now head of the National Space and Air Museum in Washington D.C. She’s read his autobiography Carrying the Fire (which remains the best of all astronaut memoirs). Resnick wants to learn from NASA’s finest. She knows that Collins is her guy. When the surprised Collins asks his unannounced visitor what she wants, Resnick pulls no punches. “Hi Mike, how are you? My name’s Judy Resnick and I want to be an astronaut.”
Almost all of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts were military pilots. Group 8 was to be different. Though the new space travelers would still include military flyboys, applicants with degrees in science, engineering, and medicine were in hot demand. NASA chose a unique public face to recruit candidates, an African American woman whose name was synonymous with space exploration. Nichelle Nichols, best known as Lieutenant Uhura from the 1960s television show Star Trek threw herself into the job with zeal. She crisscrossed the country making personal appearances at universities boasting of exceptional engineering and science programs. Other recruiters made overtures to the National Organization of Women and NAACP. These innovative tactics worked. NASA was inundated with more than 8,000 applications.
The elite 35 who made the final cut were praised for looking like America, albeit the majority still fit the established racial and gender background. Though Group 8 represented a paradigm shift in the astronaut corps, to veteran space jockeys these novices were still a bunch of TFNG, military lingo for “The Fucking New Guys.” The rookies turned this acronym around, calling themselves “Thirty-Five New Guys.” One TFNG, Kathy Sullivan, cracked sardonically that Astronaut Group 8 was really “ten interesting people and twenty-five standard white guys.”
“Ten interesting people” is still a lot to cover. Bagby zeroes in on just a few of Group 8, with their colleagues playing supporting roles. These TFNGs were as diverse as it got. Ron McNair, an MIT graduate, was raised in the segregated South, where he picked cotton and tobacco when he was just 12 years old. Resnick’s unannounced visit with Collins paid off. She was selected as one Group 8’s six women, and the first Jewish American astronaut. Anna Fisher ditched a promising medical career, risking her future on the slim chance of making it through NASA’s grueling weeding-out process. Given the intensity of training and their tight camaraderie, some inevitable romances blossomed within the TFNGs. Several ended up getting married, including Robert “Hoot” Gibson and Margaret Sedden, Anna Fisher and Bill Fisher (who followed Anna in Astronaut Group 9), plus Steve Hawley and Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space.
Ride’s story anchors a considerable amount of The New Guys and not just because of her historic position. She made spaceflight look easy, but back on Earth life was more complicated. Ride’s pioneering status turned an intensely private individual into an instant celebrity. Training to be an astronaut was one thing; the crush of fame was something else. Both the media and an admiring public loved her. Ride joked her way through mass adoration, but always with a sober understanding of what she represented to so many. Her marriage to Hawley as one of the shuttle program’s astro-couples only added to her iconic image.
The behind-the-scenes truth was wholly different. Ride was gay but closeted. Terms like LGBTQ+ were years away. Given the open prejudices and discrimination of the era, NASA, let alone the rest of America, just wasn’t ready for an openly lesbian astronaut. Ride’s old college girlfriend Molly Tyson kept their intimate past a secret; she was shocked when Ride suggested NASA contact Tyson as a great personal recommendation. The seeming dream marriage with Hawley lasted just a short five years.
After Ride left the space program in 1987, she had furtive romances with other women, but the true love of her life was writer Tam O’Shaughnessy. Their relationship lasted 27 years until Ride’s death from pancreatic cancer in 2012. As per her wishes, Ride’s sexuality was revealed only through a simple mention in her obituary.
Bagby has a lot of fun with the clueless reactions by men over the female TFNGs. The six women fielded media questions never posed to previous astronauts. How does it feel to be a mom flying to outer space knowing your kids are back on Earth? Are women emotionally equipped for space travel? What kind of perfume do you use?
Some males at NASA displayed a unique kind of ignorance. One top-ranked engineer queried with the utmost seriousness “What if all the mucus that women put out will stop up the shuttle toilet?” Another asked if one hundred tampons would be enough for a five-day mission. Ride found a lengthy string of tampons in her flight kit: it was a precautionary move by a male technologist concerned that stray feminine hygiene products might float aimlessly through the shuttle bay during zero gravity. The women had a grand time making fun of their colleagues’ ludicrous comprehensions of female biology.
As shuttle missions became routine, public interest dropped, threatening any continued funding of the program. NASA needed a gimmick to stay relevant. At one point someone suggested that Big Bird, the amiable yellow star of TV’s Sesame Street, be brought on as an astronaut. The idea was nixed when technicians realized the Big Bird costume was too large to get through the boarding hatch.
Instead, NASA honchos hit on the idea adding a teacher to an upcoming shuttle mission. It was a brilliant public relations move. The finalist, energetic high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, was a terrific choice—and ultimately a tragic one when she was part of seven-person crew killed on January 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded just 73 seconds into its flight.
There is an infuriating, ultimately tragic motif Bagby threads throughout the chapters leading up to that fateful day. O-rings, the flexible rubber joints designed to prevent leaks of hot combustion gases into rocket propellant tanks, lacked any quality control that these key stopgaps demanded. Engineers at Morton Thiokol, designer of the O-rings, knew there was a problem. Previous missions revealed the O-rings were prone to cracking, leaking, and burning. One flight came within a few millimeters of becoming the first shuttle explosion. Neither Morton Thiokol nor NASA never addressed this blatant problem on a meaningful level.
The morning of the Challenger launch was unusually cold for a Florida morning, with overnight temperatures in the twenties. Icicles hung off the shuttle. Between freezing weather and internal coolants within the rocketry, the O-rings froze up solid, losing all flexibility. There was rampant discussion on whether or not to go ahead with the launch.
Ultimately safety was overruled in favor of optics. Among other things, President Ronald Reagan was giving his State of the Union address that night. Bureaucrats across the board wanted the President’s speech to coincide with the “space teacher” mission. It would be great PR for both Reagan and NASA. The Challenger launch was a go. Disaster buried deep within the shuttle’s complex infrastructure was unimaginable.
Bagby does a marvelous job building tension to that dreaded moment we know is inevitable. Her writing becomes almost cinematic, cutting back and forth between the mundane prelaunch chatter of the Challenger crew and mission control, while underscoring this human factor with tight closeups of the O-ring, now a chunk of hardened rubber about to crack open with complete devastation. It’s a powerful chapter with all the suspense of a good Hitchcock movie.
Sally Ride, now retired from NASA, headed up the subsequent investigation. She felt she owed it to her fallen comrades. The findings were a mess with a lot of finger-pointing, all of it bad. A major overhaul on many levels seemed to rehabilitate the Shuttle program’s image.
Once Bagby reaches this narrative moment, The New Guys barrels through the rest of Group 8’s story in a swift 80 pages. As a result, too many important stories are compressed into short sections. Shannon Lucid, a veteran of five shuttle flights, joins two cosmonauts on the Russian space station Mir. Although she can’t speak Russian and they speak no English, the trio spends six months working together as Lucid sets a new a record by a woman for the number of days in space. That’s a voyage worthy of its own book—or at least more pages within The New Guys.
The most important tale demanding a larger recounting is the second shuttle disaster. On February 1, 2003, the Columbia exploded during reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. This was a calamity that could have been avoided. During launch, large chunks of foam knocked protective tiles off the ship’s left wing. The tiles were designed to shield the spacecraft from the intense heat of reentry. There were steps that NASA could have taken both prelaunch and during the flight that would have saved the astronauts from utmost disaster. As with the Challenger, the Columbia catastrophe was the result of the willful denial and neglect within a bureaucracy concerned more about image than safety.
Bagby writes stunning, almost surreal descriptions of shuttle parts smashing into the ground over a wide swarth of Texas. She creates a vision of hellfire falling from the sky, eyewitnessed in so many terrifying ways. The enormity of the moment demands an expanded telling rather than being reduced to a handful of paragraphs, powerfully written though they are. From there the book quickly wraps up as the shuttle program comes to an end.
Still, despite the flaws, Bagby’s immaculate research, coupled with her keen sense for real-life character development and dramatic arcs, makes for a fascinating and surprisingly quick read on a forgotten era of outer space exploration. The New Guys is a welcome companion to Tom Wolfe’s history of Project Mercury The Right Stuff and Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts.