Book cover
The Six
The Untold Story of America's First Women Astronauts
Loren Grush

I’ve been reading Loren Grush’s space coverage for several years, first at The Verge and more recently at Bloomberg. Like most people I normally read sites, but she’s on the shortlist of journalists I look for by name wherever I can find them. Everything she writes is clear, interesting, and shot through with enthusiasm for what the exploration of space really represents. So when I saw she had a book coming out I put it on my list right away, and as soon as it appeared I devoured it in a few short days. I was not at all disappointed.

This book is so well constructed. Even though you probably know many of the events, Grush unfolds them for us beautifully. I found the book strangely moving well before we got to heavy-weight Challenger part. Take for example the handling of Sally Ride’s queerness. Grush finds a perfect line here, reveling this part of Ride’s life without making it her life. I suppose you could say that about all six women. We run the risk of labeling them discretely, as our culture and media have done for years in one way or another. Somehow Grush addresses all this without ever falling prey to it. This is a feminist book without actually trying to be a feminist book: It just treats is subjects as the remarkable people they are, and that feels like a rebellious accomplishment.

You should have kleenex on hand for the final act. I am old enough to remember the Challenger disaster vividly. In my memory, Christa McAuliffe came to speak at my middle school when I was in sixth grade. I can’t really be sure it was her; that I’m not remembering wrong. I know for certain “NASA” came and talked about the Teacher In Space Project. And I know one of the speakers was a woman. And I clearly remember they picked one boy and one girl at random to come on stage and “try on” a space suit. I remember this part with certainty because my brother was that boy, and I was so jealous. (If I remember right, Wendy Clark was the girl.) Some day I’ll have to try to find microfiche archives of the Zionsville Times to see if McAuliffe was really there or if it was someone else.

At any rate, a few months later my sixth grade teacher greeted us all after recess by telling us there had been an accident with the Space Shuttle. I had watched the news the night before, and knew that the door had malfunctioned. I wondered why she was being so solemn about such an insignificant problem. Shuttle launches were commonplace by then, and I didn’t even know for sure there had been a launch that day. Then she told us the Shuttle had exploded. We were all led into the gymnasium where we watched news coverage and our principal spoke to us. This was the first “big national tragedy” of my life, and it was clear to all of us by the way our teachers spoke, the way our parents reacted, and by the way the news cyclically obsessed over minute details, that it was A Very Big Deal. That big explosive cloud with its divergent booster trails still persists in my memory as one of the defining images of my childhood.

Grush had a tough task on her hands. Challenger is the elephant in the room here. And once again she manages to detail that disaster with care, and without making it what this book is about.

I’m not sure what else to say except if you have any interest in space, in the history of America’s fitful acceptance of women outside the home, or in powerful true stories well told, this book is for you.