I was one of thousands of Gen X girls who thought that Sally Ride hung the moon. Scientist, astronaut, professor, writer, and mentor/cheerleader to get young people and kids interested in science — especially girls — Ride was an inspiration to the adventurous spirit in all of us.
On June 18, 1983, she was granted the mantle of instant icon when she became the first American woman in space, aboard the shuttle Challenger (at 32, she was also the youngest American in space). Here’s a news report from June 24, the day Challenger landed in California (bad weather in Florida precluded it landing there).
I watched those reports in 1983. There wasn’t an internet, so I watched the news live and followed accounts of the flight in the newspapers. The whole country went Sally Ride crazy, and I was one of many. But in the midst of it all, she conveyed a calm but approachable professionalism. When she spoke, you also got a sense of her deep love for science and passion for her work. She was born in 1951 in Encino, California where her parents cultivated her scientific pursuits and interests. She balanced those with sports, and was awarded a tennis scholarship to Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles (now the co-ed Harvard-Westlake School). Billie Jean King saw her play, and told her she was talented enough to go pro. Ride enrolled in Swarthmore College with a plan to do that, but realized instead that science was where she wanted to be, so she transferred to Stanford to study physics.
In 1977, Ride had completed degrees in both physics and English and was pursuing a Ph.D. in physics at Stanford when fate came calling. She saw an ad in the Stanford paper that NASA wanted astronauts. She applied — one of 8000 — and was selected for the training program, one of 35 (of whom 6 were women). During the second and third flights of the shuttle Columbia, she worked on the ground as a communications officer. She was also part of the team that designed the robot arm used by shuttle crews to deploy and retrieve satellites. In 1979, she became eligible for a space mission.
In 1986, Ride was the sole astronaut appointed to the Rogers Commission to investigate the Challenger disaster. A year later, she retired from NASA and in 1989 because director of the California Space Institute at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography as well as a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science to encourage women and young girls to get interested in and pursue careers in math scientific fields. Ride published five children’s books that focused on science.
The list of honors and accolades that she achieved during her life is impressive. As it should be. All were well-deserved. But it seemed, from what I’ve read of her and the interviews I’ve seen of her, that she retained a wonderfully paradoxical down-to-earth persona in the midst of her space-bound past and flying hobby.
I like to think that though she was very private, she didn’t seem aloof, especially since she devoted so much of her life to extending her interest and joy in science to so many others — especially girls and young women because she knew there should be more of us in those fields, and she showed us it could be done. When she boarded the Challenger that June day in 1983, she was challenging us, as well, to pursue lofty goals, to not take “no” for an answer, and to forge ahead and find the work that brings us joy. I didn’t pursue a career in the hard sciences, but Ride inspired me anyway, because she was doing what my deep-down always wanted to do: go into space. Explore possibilities. Imagine something beyond myself. I was so very proud of her, and I admired her for all the hard work she did to get there, and to do what she loved doing. She blazed a trail and left a legacy that we can continue to build on, but she also showed us that doing what you love can be the most fun you’ve ever had.
If you’re interested in furthering her mission, please visit Sally Ride Science for information about its myriad programs and resources, like science camps for middle school girls and materials for educators. Sally Ride Science also has information if you’d like to make a gift in Ride’s memory to the Sally Ride Pancreatic Cancer Initiative. Click here.
Other articles about her in the wake of her death at age 61 of pancreatic cancer include this one at the LA Times, her biography at Sally Ride Science, NASA biographical data, CNN piece (includes photos of her through the years and reactions to her death), and New York Times slideshow.