HOUSTON - Former astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, is participating in her second investigation of a shuttle disaster and acknowledges it's a discouraging way to mark the 20th anniversary of her historic flight.
She has seen all the space shuttle program's warts up close, yet hopes that whatever is broken within NASA can be fixed and that the shrunken fleet will - and should - fly again, possibly a year from now.
Even knowing all she knows from the investigation - about decision-making errors and flawed inspections - she'd fly the shuttle again if she were still in the astronaut corps.
"It's got a lot of good years left in it, but attention has to be paid to aging," Ride said after another long day of Columbia investigative work. Historically, NASA isn't used to operating old spacecraft, but in a time of tighter budgets for the space program, she believes the agency needs to do a better job.
In an interview before flying home to San Diego, Ride acknowledged it's depressing to spend the 20th anniversary of her flight deciphering the events that led to Columbia's destruction and the deaths of seven astronauts.
"But in another sense, it's rewarding because it's an opportunity to be part of the solution and part of the changes that will occur and will make the program better," she said.
Ride rocketed into orbit and into headlines on June 18, 1983, on Challenger. It was two decades after the Soviets had sent a woman into space, but Ride, a physicist, was the first American woman to go up. She beat out five colleagues.
She returned to space a year later, again aboard Challenger, and was training for her third and final mission when the shuttle erupted in a fireball barely a minute into liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986.
Columbia was ending a mission when it shattered above Texas on Feb. 1 - 17 years and four days later.
Since Ride's famous ride, 37 women have flown on space shuttles. That represents about 13 percent of the total number of shuttle travelers.
At present, women make up 21 percent of NASA's astronaut corps.
And women make up 28 percent of the shuttle casualty list.
Two women died aboard Challenger: Christa McAuliffe, the schoolteacher, and Judith Resnik, who had become the second American woman in space 11/2 years earlier.
Two women also died aboard Columbia: Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark.
Ride, 52, says she would jump at the chance to rocket into orbit again - if only she could skip all the months and years of training.
She's too busy these days with other things. Besides serving on the Columbia board, she is a physics professor at the University of California at San Diego and runs the Sally Ride Science Club for girls through her company, Imaginary Lines Inc. The company's goal is to encourage elementary- and middle-school girls in science, math, engineering and technology.
Ride insists she would not be any more afraid to fly after what happened to Columbia. She recalls being nervous for her first launch and surprised when "this unbelievable feeling of helplessness, like there was nothing I could do" washed over her at the moment of liftoff.
Before Challenger and certainly before Columbia, "there was a real, pretty good understanding that things could go wrong."
"It's important to realize that rockets are rockets, and rockets are still risky technology and that's true of every type of rocket that we or any other country have ever built," she said. "Rockets don't work 100 percent of the time. They just don't."
Ride will celebrate the anniversary of her flight with 800 girls taking part in a super science festival organized by her company at Florida's Kennedy Space Center. All 800 will be there when she becomes the first woman inducted into the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame.
There are still times she wishes she hadn't been first. "It was a huge honor," she said. "On the other hand, it sure did complicate things. I'm the sort of person who likes to be able to just walk into the supermarket and not be recognized. I can do that most of the time now.
"A lot of people recognize the name. Very few recognize my face. That's very good," she said, laughing. "That is very good."