Houston — OK, so America likes its heroes embued with the ineffable Right Stuff. That much we've known since the Mercury Seven were selected back in 1959. Military test pilots and talk of ''8 Gs.'' That's what astronauts were made of.
Now, 25 years later, we send our space heroes aloft under new pluralistic criteria - first woman, first black, first mother in space. New right stuff presumably.
So when the first American woman to walk in space strides into a room sporting argyle socks and a handshake that says this is a person you'd want on your side in a pickup softball game, we think, ''Of course.'' She's a self-effacing heroine who talks about being a woman in the space program as ''a non-thing.'' She's a PhD in geology whose brother urged her to apply as one of the first 1,200 female astronaut applicants. She all but says ''p'shaw'' when asked about her phenomenal success.
''When I walked in (to the space program), the door was darn near being held open for us,'' says Kathryn Sullivan during a recent interview at the Johnson Space Center. ''Opening the legalistic door was not something I had to take a sledgehammer to. I'm beholden to a lot of people who came before.''
As one of six women that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) selected in 1978 as the first female astronaut candidates for the space shuttle program, Dr. Sullivan entered an elite group. Since the beginning of the 22-year-old US space program, more than 50 astronauts on 41 manned flights have been sent aloft. All were men until Sally Ride, one of Sullivan's colleagues, rode the shuttle in June 1983. Dr. Judith Resnick flew last August, and Sullivan flew in October as the third American woman in space and the first American woman to walk outside the shuttle. Then in November, Anna Fisher flew on the shuttle Discovery's satellite rescue mission. Female astronauts have become regular participants on shuttle flights.
Many observers credit the change to the adoption of the 1972 amendment to the Civil Rights Act that forbade sexual discrimination within federal agencies, as well as growing pressure from the Soviet space program that sent the first woman aloft in 1963. But some NASA officials insist the modification is due wholly to updated astronaut criteria.
''During the Mercury space program our prime criterion for astronauts was being a test flight pilot, and I don't know of any women who filled that requirement,'' says George Abbey, director of flight-crew operations. ''Now in the shuttle program we need . . . pilots and mission specialists, who really perform the primary work onboard. A lot of women now meet the criteria for those positions.''
But other NASA officials insist that changing social attitudes were the prime catalyst for women's admission into the astronaut corps. ''We had a great number of women qualified to be astronauts, but the doors were not open (to them) until the mid 1970's. Why not?'' asks Dr. Carolyn Huntoon, associate director of the Johnson Space Center. ''Yes, there was a change in the space program, but also the mood of the country changed.''
While women constitute only slightly more than 10 percent of the current astronaut corps and no woman yet holds a shuttle pilot position, 11 of the 49 mission specialists are women and more are to be selected each year according to program needs.
''Actually, to me the whole (issue of) women in space is a non-thing,'' says Dr. Sullivan. ''To a pleasantly surprising extent around here it's just people. You need to . . . earn your respect and demonstrate your abilities, and before you get concrete chances to do that you encounter some hard-core skeptics who aren't going to believe it until they see it. . . . But, shoot, that's fair. It's how some people transition. Generally there are pretty objective folks around here who, once the evidence plops on their desk, go 'Ok,' '' and she snaps her fingers for emphasis.
Talking to Sullivan, who describes herself as ''not a politician-type person, '' one finds her a mixture of the colloquial and the scientific. Clutching a sheaf of reports and dressed simply in green corduroy trousers, green button-down shirt, plastic ID dangling from her belt, she cuts an efficient, no-nonsense figure.
She speaks quickly and matter of factly, and her speech is peppered with scientific terms such as ''geosynchronous orbit'' and ''zero G'' as well as more down-to-earth phrases such as ''really neat,'' ''folks,'' and ''rats.'' She is a woman who clearly enjoys her job but feels acutely a sense of responsibility. As she describes her multifaceted role:
* ''Doing public relations is part of NASA's charter, too. We are the civilian space program and we work for everybody in the country.''
* ''Personal preferences don't count. You do what you need to do to get a mission done. . . .''
* ''We don't just sit around waiting for a mission and then throw a white scarf over our shoulder and go out and fly. There's a lot more meat to the job in all those months and years that you're not flying than most people realize. . . . Getting to fly is really neat and really a privilege . . . but it is very definitely only the icing on the cake.''Yet it is precisely this so-called ''icing on the cake'' that fascinates people. Sullivan herself becomes most animated when talking about her historic first flight.''There is, of course, no magic switch to turn off gravity. And there are only two ways to practice (on Earth),'' she says when asked about preflight training. ''One is our version of a Boeing 707, flown in a series of what looks like hills and valleys during which you get 30-seconds of where you and everything else is thrown off the floor. It's not zero gravity, but it is like . . . what you'd have (on board the shuttle).'' The other method, designed specifically for those astronauts scheduled to walk in space, involves months of practice wearing the million-dollar extravehicular-activity (EVA) suits underwater in a full-scale mockup of the shuttle's payload bay.After nearly five years of this general astronaut training, including hundreds of hours of classroom time, and a year spent specifically preparing for flight, Sullivan and six fellow astronauts, including Dr. Ride, were ready for shuttle mission 41-G.Liftoff, Sullivan says with a smile, is ''primarily excitement.'' Unlike previous space missions shuttle astronauts never see more than three times the force of gravity, about the same sensation of taking a corner in a car too fast. Nonetheless, Sullivan says, launch ''is a real good, healthy, everyway-you-can-imagine shaking - and you're going that way,'' she says pointing skyward, ''in a hurry. You're very aware of the power of solid rockets.''Once in orbit and weightless, Sullivan says the shirt-sleeve environment on-board is ''very much like sitting here except you can sit up on the ceiling if you want to. It's great fun.'' Although the main living area of the shuttle or middeck is quite small - ''you can stretch your arms fore to aft and touch both walls'' - it is where the seven-person crew eats, sleeps, exercises, and generally lives. ''What saves you ,'' says Sullivan ''is that zero G (no gravity) lets you be more creative with how you pack people in. If it's too crowded with seven people down here for lunch, put three of them up there,'' she says, nodding upwards.While the shuttle commander and pilot spend most of their day up above on the flight deck, Sullivan's area of expertise took her outside the spacecraft into the payload bay, that cargo carrying area of the shuttle similar to the back of a flatbed truck, except ''we could put a Greyhound bus out there.'' It is there that Sullivan and colleague David Leetsma, in bulky EVA suits, were to work for more than three hours testing a system for refueling satellites in space. ''The primary part of the job in orbit is 110 percent intellectual and academic. EVA is the exception,'' Sullivan says. ''You do hard work in that suit and you do need to be fit.'' With more than six years of preparation, and four hours of donning and testing the suit onboard the shuttle, Sullivan finally stepped out of the airlock into the vacuum of space. In her typically understated manner she sums up her reaction: ''I was excited that we were getting to do it, I wasn't at all afraid. I knew we were ready, because you've done this probably 150 times in the pool and you can do it blindfolded in your sleep.''Although wearing the EVA suit is ''like being in a machine,'' with fans and pumps whirring, she says, ''actually what you're thinking about is you've got three hours to do this (job) and it's not just for fun and it's not just to amuse you. This is important stuff. So there's this little wall holding back the Disneyland feelings that you'd love to have the luxury to indulge in, but you've got to just press on with the job. Now and then you hit a moment you can take a break and lean back and say, 'Wow, that's great.' '' After seven days aloft, the only ''disappointing moment'' comes during reentry. Sullivan describes it as ''a brick falling through space'' and ''totally different than launch.'' The shuttle is turned around, its rockets fired to slow down speed and orbit while the astronauts suit up inside. As the shuttle begins to hit the sensible atmosphere, ''like a rock skipping across the surface of water,'' a pinkish orange glow of ionized gas is generated and the passengers begin to feel gravity slowly build back up. ''The moment that it hit me,'' says Sullivan, ''that we really are going back to Earth, I had my camera in my lap and Sally (Ride) had a checklist up on the top deck and I heard this 'Rats. My checklist doesn't float.' And I thought, 'Oh darn, we really are going home.''Sullivan is not scheduled to fly again until late 1985 or early '86. But she is eager to participate in a probable 90-day mission. The only trained geologist in the astronaut corps, Sullivan says that many of the same planning principals she used on her oceangoing geological research, such as ''being ready to throw the bow lines ashore and go out to sea for four months,'' apply to space exploration. In the future, she anticipates serving on a space station or a return trip to the moon.''NASA's charter is . . . to do the innovative, unforeseen, unplanned frontier-type activities in space and aeronautics,'' she says. ''As soon as we get a space station, develop the technologies to let you support people in space for long periods of time . . . NASA's part of that is done when it's operating. And NASA's job is to say, 'Ok, what's the next step on this frontier?' I hope the answer to that one is the moon.''But Sullivan also seems acutely aware of her role in the space program now. ''There's a whole generation of people who've grown up with space (exploration) as a reality in their lifetime,'' she said during a recent televised interview. ''And it's not unusual for them to figure that normal people are doing this and maybe (they) have a chance, too.''