Remembering Dr Sally Ride (1951-2012)

Posted on Jul 25, 2012 in Everyday Life, Science, Technology & Society

When I was girl I thought I would grow up to be a scientist — and an astronaut. I built space stations out of cardboard and tinfoil, and made sure that my super awesome science lab was the biggest room.

A is for Astronaut. (A is for Anne!)

I can still remember watching the STS-7 Challenger launch in 1983, and even though I had seen other launches, I remember that one being different — being special — because NASA was sending a woman into space for the first time.

The day after the launch, Gloria Steinem said that “Millions of little girls are going to sit by their television sets and see they can be astronauts, heroes, explorers and scientists.”

I was one of those girls.

Other people told me I could be an astronaut, but Dr Sally Ride showed me. And that made her a real life — real live — hero.

I also remember being a bit jealous of Grundgetta, Oscar’s Grouch girlfriend, when she got to hang out with Sally on Sesame Street in 1984. I figured that she was always smiling because she got to go into space. And true enough, when the shuttle returned to Earth, Dr Ride told reporters, “I’m sure it was the most fun that I’ll ever have in my life.

To be honest, I haven’t thought about Sally Ride in a long time. Maybe even since I gave up my dreams of being an astronaut. But yesterday, when I found out she was dead, I remembered and I cried.

According to the Sally Ride Science website:

“Sally lived her life to the fullest, with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, joy, and love. Her integrity was absolute; her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless.

In addition to Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years, Sally is survived by her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear; her niece, Caitlin, and nephew, Whitney; her staff of 40 at Sally Ride Science; and many friends and colleagues around the country.

Donations can be made to the Sally Ride Pancreatic Cancer Initiative.”

As an adult — older now than she was then — I can truly appreciate the kind of calm confidence it must have taken to bear the media attention she received:

“Speaking to reporters before the first shuttle flight, Dr. Ride — chosen in part because she was known for keeping her cool under stress — politely endured a barrage of questions focused on her sex: Would spaceflight affect her reproductive organs? Did she plan to have children? Would she wear a bra or makeup in space? Did she cry on the job? How would she deal with menstruation in space?

The CBS News reporter Diane Sawyer asked her to demonstrate a newly installed privacy curtain around the shuttle’s toilet. On ‘The Tonight Show,’ Johnny Carson joked that the shuttle flight would be delayed because Dr. Ride had to find a purse to match her shoes.

At a NASA news conference, Dr. Ride said: ‘It’s too bad this is such a big deal. It’s too bad our society isn’t further along’.”

When reporters dared to bring up her boobs, Ride very coolly responded “There is no sag in zero G.” My response to any of these questions would have likely excluded me from the astronaut ranks, and definitely precluded any future interviews or public appearances.

But Dr Ride was so much more than the first American woman in space. By all accounts, she was an accomplished physicist, an inspiring teacher and writer of children’s books, and ceaseless advocate for the inclusion of girls and young women in STEM education and careers.

She also served on the panel that investigated the Challenger accident and, in addition to providing her professional expertise, demonstrated extraordinary personal grace and compassion:

“One witness was Roger Boisjoly, an engineer who had worked for the company that made the shuttle’s rocket boosters and who had been shunned by colleagues for revealing that he had warned his bosses and NASA that the boosters’ seals, called O-rings, could fail in cold weather. The Challenger had taken off on a cold morning.

After his testimony, Dr. Ride, who was known to be reserved and reticent, publicly hugged him. She was the only panelist to offer him support. Mr. Boisjoly, who died in January, said her gesture had helped sustain him during a troubled time.”

And although Dr Ride probably wouldn’t have made much of this either, I think the Huffington Post did right by reminding everyone:

“This is what a lesbian looks like: Sally Ride: physicist; author of seven science books for children; member of the space shuttle Challenger crew; member of the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology; director of the California Science Institute; inductee into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the California Hall of Fame, the Aviation Hall of Fame, and the Astronaut Hall of Fame; recipient of the Jefferson Award for Public Service, the von Braun Award, the Lindbergh Eagle, the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award, and the NASA Space Flight Medal (twice).”

Sally Kristen Ride was will always be my hero.

But I’ll leave the last words to Denise Grady in the NYTimes:

“Dr. Ride told interviewers that what drove her was not the desire to become famous or to make history as the first woman in space. All she wanted to do was fly, she said, to soar into space, float around weightless inside the shuttle, look out at the heavens and gaze back at Earth. In photographs of her afloat in the spaceship, she was grinning, as if she had at long last reached the place she was meant to be.”