Hitting the Books: NASA’s Class 8 broke color barriers and glass ceilings alike

America’s first astronauts from the 1960s were all pulled from the highest ranks of the nation’s military. As such, NASA’s first few classes tended to conform to a rather specific demographic theme — white, male, flattop haircut you could set a watch too. By the mid-70’s however, the space agency had gotten with the times and opened up the spacewalking profession to more than former Air Force and Navy test pilots. 

In The New Guys, author Meredith Bagby follows the exploits of NASA’s Astronaut class of 1978 — “Class 8,” America’s first women, African Americans, Asian American, and gay person to fly to space — from the team’s selection through their mastering of cutting-edge technologies aboard the Space Shuttle and their history-making orbital missions. In the excerpt below, Class 8 receives a brutal introduction to the dangers that await them. 

white background with four color photos of various astronauts that don't look like first gen GI Joe action figures alternating left and right alignment with the title sitting alternate.

Harper Collins Publishing

From The New Guys by Meredith Bagby. Copyright © 2023 by Meredith Bagby. Reprinted courtesy of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Johnson Space Center, Houston. July 1978

“Hey! We’ve got a fire in the cockpit!” a man screamed, then his voice cut out. Within seconds, another desperate voice cut through the static.

“We’ve got a bad fire . . . !” the second man shouted in pain.

“We’re burning up . . . !!!” a third howled.

Then the transmission faded into nothing but static.

In one of the many tiered seats in Mission Control, Ron McNair and his new classmates listened to a recording of the Apollo 1 fire. During a preflight test on January 27, 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee had burned alive. Even though over a decade had passed since the accident, the pain and fear of the astronauts who perished was palpable to the room of new recruits.

The instructor surveyed the faces of the astronaut candidates. Are you sure you’re ready for this? The audio was a wake-up call, especially for those like Ron who had not served in the military and had never had a job with life-and-death consequences. If this reality was too much for any of them to accept, the instructor suggested, now was the time to go. No one budged.

A few weeks earlier, as Ron moved his family across the country from left-leaning Malibu, California, to the Lone Star State, the summer sizzled. Disco hits from the Bee Gees’, “Night Fever” and “Stayin’ Alive,” blared from the radio. Billboards advertised the new Hollywood blockbuster Grease, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. In the nation’s capital, almost a hundred thousand demonstrators marched in support of the Equal Rights Amendment—at the time, the largest march for women’s rights in US history. Muhammad Ali was on the verge of making history at the Louisiana Superdome, becoming the first man to win the World Heavyweight title three times in a row.

When Ron and his wife, Cheryl, arrived in Houston, they found a little starter apartment before moving to Clear Lake along with the Onizukas and the Gregorys. Everyone that had kids—or planned to—wanted a lawn for football and a cul-de-sac for bike riding. The neighborhood’s proximity to the middle and high schools made it the obvious choice for families. Single astronauts like Sally Ride, Kathy Sullivan, and Steve Hawley settled into apartments right outside Johnson’s back gate with a short commute, volleyball court, and communal barbecue pit.

On the Monday after the July 4th holiday, Ron drove through the gates of Johnson Space Center for his first day of work. Looking up from his baffling acronym-filled schedule, Ron spotted a few of his classmates and followed them to Building 4, the home of Johnson’s Flight Crew Operations. Everyone was rushing to the Monday morning all-hands meeting, a staple of the Astronaut Office since the Mercury days.

Standing watch from their office doors, Sylvia Salinas, Mary Lopez, and Estella Hernandez Gillette, all in their twenties, took in the excitement as the new astronauts stormed the hallways. The Hispanic American administrative staff — working in and around the Astronaut Office — came to be known as the Mexican Mafia. As the liaisons for George Abbey and John Young, Sylvia and Mary, and later Estella, ran the show behind scenes, making sure things went smoothly in the Astronaut Office. Up until then, the astronauts they worked for were military men, older in age and more conventional in style; they did not fraternize with support staff. Now, “kids like them” were rolling in. The arrival of Astronaut Class 8 was like a breath of fresh air.

A large conference table surrounded by two rings of chairs dominated Room 3025, the locus of the Monday meeting. Assuming the first ring was reserved for administrators and senior astronauts, Ron took a seat in the back row, as did the rest of his class. Everyone, that is, except the blond, mustachioed Rick Hauck, a US Navy commander who by military standards was the most senior-ranking pilot of their class. Hauck took a seat at the table. Some in the room gasped. Others eyed him with suspicion. Wow, he must either be a fool or the most confident bastard among us. Maybe both. Either way he made an impression.

Like Hauck, the fifteen fighter pilots in Ron’s class had plenty of swagger and bravado, and mixed easily with the veteran astronauts. The old guys, twenty-eight in all, including moonwalkers John Young and Alan Bean, whom Ron met during interview week, filled the inner circle. Among them were astronauts still itching for their first trip to space, like Bob “Crip” Crippen, the baby of the group at forty years old, and Richard “Dick” Truly, both career military pilots who had flown for both the Navy and Air Force. These yet-to-fly guys were caught between programs, too late for Apollo and—so far—too early for the shuttle. Crippen and Truly were part of Astronaut Group 7, who had been transferred to NASA after the cancellation of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), a classified Cold War military project developed to acquire surveillance images from space. After a decade at the agency, the former MOL astronauts had only ever flown a desk.

Everyone here wanted a ticket to space, but the ten interesting people would be setting historical precedent, breaking barriers that in the past restricted people like them from space travel. Of the six women in the room, one would be the first American woman in space. While the Soviets had flown the first female astronaut, Valentina Tereshkova—being the first American woman in space would earn a prominent place in the annals of history. In 1978, no Black person had flown to space. Ron, along with Guy Bluford, and Fred Gregory would compete to be the first, while Ellison Onizuka would almost certainly be the first Asian American to fly. Guy and Fred, both Vietnam vets, and El, an Air Force test pilot, all spoke the military language of the old guys. Ron was an outsider even among outsiders.

John Young, chief of the Astronaut Office, began the meeting, mumbling “a few forgettable words of welcome” while staring at his shoes. Though he had braved the depths of space four times, on both Apollo and Gemini, Young had not conquered public speaking. Compact, with a jockey’s build, Young was a handsome Navy devil with big ears and an aw-shucks demeanor that belied how truly meticulous he was. He preferred solving thorny engineering problems, to dealing with management issues, and yet here he was as head of the Astronaut Office. He explained to the new class that they were not yet astronauts; they were still astronaut candidates, or “AsCans” for short. Only after two years of training would they earn the title astronaut and a silver pin to mark the achievement.

Inspired by Navy and Air Force aviator badges, the pin depicted a trio of rays merged atop a shining star and encircled by a halo denoting orbital flight. The silver pin meant you were flight-ready, but the gold pin meant you had flown to space. That’s when you make it. Young then left the group with a bit of sage advice: “Don’t talk about nothing you know nothing about.” Got it. So basically, keep our mouths shut.

As the old guys left the room, they once-overed the new guys. Quite simply, the old guys were a different generation. They were veterans, test pilots, and guys who had never worked with women or civilian graduate students. Underneath their pique was also perhaps a tinge of fear. The line to ride the bird just got a whole lot longer; maybe they would miss their chance altogether.

Who are these guys anyway? Hell, half of them are civilians, wet behind the ears, fresh off their mother’s teat. They traded in high grades and accolades, not in life-or-death. The old guys shook their heads. Those Fucking New Guys. “The Fucking New Guy,” a military term for the newest grunt in the unit, seemed to suit Astronaut Class 8 perfectly. So was born the official class nickname: TFNG. In polite company, the TFNGs referred to themselves as “Thirty-Five New Guys,” but everyone knew what the term really meant.

After the meeting, secretary Sylvia Salinas handed the New Guys their official NASA portraits and asked them to create signatures for the auto-pen machine. The agency would print thousands of autographed photos. Do thousands of people want our autograph? Ron wondered. It’s astronaut insurance, a veteran astronaut quipped. If you die, your family will have something to sell. The joke did not get any laughs.

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