She had the perfect background, the perfect smile, and the perfect name to inspire a generation of women: Sally Ride.
The song lyrics “Ride, Sally, ride” seemed like they were written just for her. (They weren’t, but no matter, they still fit for a woman who refused to keep her feet on the ground.) Her 1983 voyage into space, the first for an American woman, came late — the Russians had done it first, 20 years earlier — but still managed to be momentous.
She went on another trip on the Space Shuttle in 1984 and then, for another three decades or so, she settled into a role as a UC San Diego scientist and leading advocate for the science education of girls.
When news came that one of San Diego’s most famous residents died yesterday at the age of 61, people remembered a face, a full head of 1980s hair and a message. At the KPBS newsroom, “most of the women in the room gasped,” writes reporter Beth Ford Roth. “Even if we never had any intentions of become astronauts, Ride showed many of us that there were no limits to what girls could do. There was no glass ceiling in space.”
Behind all the trailblazing was a woman who put up with old-boy’s-club-ism and managed, amazingly, to keep her private life out of public view. It’s only now, after her death, that she has become (and forever will be) a gay icon.
Here’s a look at what we’re learning about Sally Ride.
1. Her inspirational powers are immense.
“Millions of little girls are going to sit by their television sets and see they can be astronauts, heroes, explorers and scientists,” declared feminist leader Gloria Steinem during Ride’s first journey into space.
Steinem was right. Here are memories of her influence from women today:
Writer Annalee Newitz on io9.com:
I loved Sally Ride. With her curly brown hair and bravery, she reminded me of another astronaut I loved — Ripley, from Alien. Except Sally Ride was real. Because of women like Ride, I grew up in a world where female astronauts were not just fictional. I knew that women could go to space, and succeed there, because an ordinary scientist like Ride had done it. Because of Ride’s trip offworld, I saw the future differently than my mother did when she was young.
Commenter “Marhattan” on CNN.com:
You were a childhood hero and inspiration. I stayed home when I was 9 years old to watch the first woman go to space and it altered the course of my life. I graduated with a degree in astrophysics and have been active in the space community my entire adult life in large part because her actions and courage … I hope she died having some idea of the extent to which she had a positive impact in the lives of others.
Contributor cynthiafalaron CNN.com:
Sally Ride is an icon to me and to all American women to dream. She was a pioneer to encourage small town girls to think big. Most of all she got me to wonder how I fit into the world and what I had to contribute.
Pamela Melroy, one of the only women to command a space shuttle mission:
I knew I wanted to be an astronaut from watching the Apollo astronauts land on the moon, but Sally cemented the belief inside me that I could do it. She paved the way for women to work in space and made it so much easier for other women to follow where she led.
2. She put up with plenty of nonsense.
Sexism was hardly a thing of the past when Ride prepared for her first shuttle journey in 1983. Here’s a glimpse of what she had to deal with, courtesy of an elegant and detailed obituary in The New York Times:
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.”
Ride’s patience with nonsense had limits. She was no pushover when she took part in an investigation of the 1986 Challenger disaster, and she was the only member of a panel to publicly stand by an engineer who’d “been shunned by colleagues for revealing that he had warned his bosses and NASA” about a potential problem on the shuttle, the NY Times reports.
“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. [The engineer], who died in January, said her gesture had helped sustain him during a troubled time.”
3. Ride sought the key to why girls fell behind in science
In an interview that you can watch online, Ride said she noticed while speaking to schoolchildren that plenty of girls were interested in science in elementary school but their numbers fell by the time they reached high school and college: “it was really clear that the pipeline was leaking more girls than boys, all the way from elementary school through college.”
She decided to work to to change the culture:
…if we want scientists and engineers in the future, we should be cultivating the girls as much as the boys, and that we needed to be able to give girls in middle school, high school and college the same opportunities that we give to boys. So I have put in a lot of time creating programs for girls, particularly in middle school, to just keep them engaged and introduce them to role models, show them that whether they want to be a rocket scientist or a geochemist or a microbiologist, that there are women who are now actively involved in those careers and who love what they do. I think it’s slowly but surely having an impact.
Her 11-year-old company, the La Jolla-based Sally Ride Science, devotes itself to helping girls succeed in science through festivals, teacher training, books, summer camps and more.
Still, she told Smithsonian.com in 2009, girls continued to brush up against limits set by themselves: “you see all these boys who get C’s in math and say, “I’m going to be an engineer!’ And all these girls who get A’s in math and say, ‘I’m not good enough.’”
4. She cloaked her private life
The world knew Ride married an astronaut in 1982 and got divorced in 1987. Her company says she had a female partner for 27 years, meaning their relationship began before the marriage officially ended.
The world didn’t know, until yesterday, that she had a long-term gay relationship. There weren’t even speculation or rumors about her sexual orientation.
Her family, friends and co-workers knew. After all, her partner — Tam O’Shaughnessy — is chief operating officer of her company.
Her sexual orientation has prompted discussion about her decision to remain silent about her personal life — always an issue for gay celebrities — and set off a debate among editors of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia about how to describe it, if at all.
Why didn’t she out herself? “That wasn’t her battle of choice — the battle of choice was science education for kids,” her sister told a Florida newspaper.
Ride’s Scandinavian reserve played a role too. “Sally didn’t use labels. Sally had a very fundamental sense of privacy, it was just her nature, because we’re Norwegians, through and through,” her sister Bear told Buzzfeed.com.
Space.com says Ride is the only one of 330 American astronauts who’s known to be gay or bisexual.
“The fact that Sally Ride was a lesbian will further help round out Americans’ understanding of the contributions of LGBT Americans to our country,” the head of the Human Rights Campaign advocacy group told Buzzfeed.
5. Ride wanted to be remembered as fearless risk taker.
In the interview, she was asked about her legacy. This is what she had to say:
I would like to be remembered as someone who was not afraid to do what she wanted to do, and as someone who took risks along the way in order to achieve her goals.
She fulfilled her dreams. The New York Times put it this way:
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.
CORRECTION: This story incorrectly described Ride’s partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, as the chief executive officer of Sally Ride Science. In fact, she is the chief operating officer and Ride was the CEO. We regret the error.
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