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Review: The Six

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The Six: The Untold Story of America's First Women Astronauts
by Loren Grush
Scribner, 2023
hardcover, 432 pp.
ISBN 978-1-9821-7280-0

More than 45 years ago, NASA announced a new class of astronauts, the first chosen for the shuttle era. Those 35 people included, famously, NASA’s first six women selected to the astronaut corps, who became instant celebrities as they made history, subject to countless articles, news stories, and other accounts over the decades since their selection. Is there more to add to that historical account?

There is with The Six, the new book by space journalist Loren Grush. The book offers one of the best balanced portraits of the six women selected in that class—Anna Fisher, Shannon Lucid, Sally Ride, Judy Resnik, Rhea Seddon, and Kathy Sullivan—and their individual approaches to becoming astronauts and eventually flying in space while also working with, and sometimes competing against, one another at NASA.

“But the truth was, they weren’t exactly best friends. They were trusted coworkers, and they could form a united front when they needed—but outside of work, they didn’t see each other much,” Grush writes.

The book follows the lives of all six women as they follow separate paths to becoming part of that historic astronaut class, then being thrown together to face both internal and external challenges towards flying to space. Those accounts individually don’t offer any new major revelations about them, but do help fully illustrate each person and their experiences inside and outside of NASA.

Some might expect those women to have formed close bonds of friendship, or even fierce rivalries. The reality was somewhat different. “But the truth was, they weren’t exactly best friends. They were trusted coworkers, and they could form a united front when they needed—but outside of work, they didn’t see each other much,” Grush writes. There were strong individual friendships among some of the group, she notes, but that many had their best friendships with other astronauts they ended up spending more time with than with each other.

They did work together, particularly when dealing with some of the rampant sexism that, with the hindsight of history, looks extraordinarily awful. That cooperation included impromptu debriefs with each other when doing media interviews after their selection, exchanging intelligence in the privacy of the women’s restroom on who was asking what kinds of questions.

That nuanced recounting of how those six women interacted during their time at NASA is the strength of The Six. Other books, in particular memoirs and biographies, have focused on individual astronauts, especially Ride. Even The New Guys, a book published earlier this year about that overall 35-person astronaut class dubbed the TFNGs, treated the six women unevenly, with Lucid hardly being mentioned until late in the book (see “Review: The New Guys”, The Space Review, February 6, 2023). There is a much greater balance among the six in The Six.

Grush talked with dozens of people for the book, including Lucid and Seddon and other former astronauts. Interestingly, the other two surviving women, Fisher and Sullivan, declined interviews because of “contractual obligations.” (She worked around that in part by attending several “Chat with an Astronaut” sessions Fisher did at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, which helped her get “answers to many of my more pressing questions.”) Historical records, including NASA’s extensive oral history program, helped supplement those interviews.

NASA’s astronaut classes more recently have approached gender parity: four women and six men in the most recent class selected in late 2021. There is more history for them to make as well, such as becoming the first woman on the Moon on an Artemis mission later this decade. That person is already part of NASA’s astronaut corps, Grush notes at the end of the book: “All she’s waiting on is her selection.”

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