- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Six days ago Sally Ride sat in a conference room in Washington grilling witnesses at a public hearing and gathering information for the investigation of the Feb. 1 space shuttle Columbia breakup.

It is not how she expected to spend her time on the eve of the anniversary of her historic journey to space.

Miss Ride, 52, became the first American woman in space 20 years ago today. That achievement stands in stark contrast to her work investigating a wounded space agency whose shuttle fleet is grounded. Now she is trying to help NASA get off the ground again.

Columbia’s breakup has overshadowed the anniversary of Miss Ride’s flight, but the anniversary is no less significant.

Thirty American women have flown to space since Miss Ride went to space aboard the Challenger on June 18, 1983.

“It was so exciting to see a woman go to space,” said Air Force Col. Pam Melroy, a senior at Wellesley College when Miss Ride made her initial trip to space.

Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space, making her voyage in 1963.

“It’s slow going, but the tide is turning,” said Col. Melroy, who piloted shuttle missions to the International Space Station in 2000 and 2002.

During missions in 1983 and 1984, Miss Ride operated the shuttle’s robotic arm to release communications satellites and worked on science experiments. She was preparing for a third shuttle mission when Challenger exploded during liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986. Two women died aboard Challenger — school teacher Christa McAuliffe and astronaut Judith Resnick.

Miss Ride was appointed to the Rogers Commission, the panel charged with figuring out why Challenger blew apart. She was a late addition to the 13-member Columbia Accident Investigation Board, making her the only person involved in both the Challenger and Columbia inquiries.

“She’s providing much of the institutional memory,” said Howard McCurdy, an American University professor who has studied NASA’s history and has helped with the Columbia accident investigation.

Miss Ride, now a professor of space science at the University of California at San Diego, also is the most recognizable person on the 13-member Columbia investigation board.

Miss Ride’s efforts are focused on documenting the decisions NASA made after Columbia exploded. She is investigating the e-mail warnings from NASA engineers about possible damage to Columbia and the space agency’s decision not to have Defense Department spy satellites photograph the shuttle during its 16-day orbit.

Miss Ride also has wondered publicly whether NASA disregarded potential damage from foam insulation because it never caused serious damage during previous shuttle flights. Accident investigators believe foam peeled from Columbia’s fuel tank and pierced the shuttle’s left wing, creating a hole that let scorching gases burn it during reentry.

“Tile damage was a very big concern in the early stages of the shuttle program, a huge concern. … As time went on, people, I think, got used to tile damage from debris off the external tank, got used to repairing that between flights. … That is just the sort of thing that we’re trying to get at. So as I said, I think I’m hearing an echo here,” she said at an April 8 press conference.

The investigations into the Challenger and Columbia explosions also are similar, she said.

“My impression is that the [Rogers Commission and the Columbia Accident Investigation Board] are really very, very similar and have a very similar approach to the accident and to the investigation. You know, the times are different, NASA is different, the accidents were different, the details are different, but a lot of the questions that we’re asking are the same and we’ll just see what we come up with here,” she said.

To commemorate her 1983 flight, the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame will induct Miss Ride this weekend.

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