Ride, Sally Ride…

Sally Kristen Ride (1951-2012) Credit: NASA

Sally Ride, who sadly passed away on Monday from pancreatic cancer, was an American hero. She was a scientist, an explorer, and a pioneer. Not only did she break into a world (or beyond a world really) dominated by men, but she also secretly lived her life as the only confirmed homosexual astronaut. I don’t want to dwell on Ride’s sexual orientation because I feel like that will only put a label on her, but I do feel like it’s an important fact that underlines the impact that Sally Ride had on American society and the magnitude of the obstacles that she must have faced and overcome to achieve what she did. On June 18, 1983, she flew as part of the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger and became the first American woman in space. She served as an inspiration and role model for millions of young girls to whom science and space seemed an inaccessible “boys club” and spent most of her post-NASA career encouraging young people, specifically girls, to pursue careers in the sciences. As this CNN article reports, Ride’s influence and legacy can be seen in the huge growth in female involvement and success in the sciences. Since Ride, 44 more American women have flown in space (compared to 299 American men)– that’s about 13% of all American spacefarers.

Sally Ride was born on May 26, 1951 in Los Angeles, California. Her father, Dale, was a political science professor at Santa Monica College and her mother, Carol, worked as a volunteer counselor at a women’s correctional facility. Both of her parents were extremely involved in the Presbyterian Church; in fact Sally’s sister, Karen (known as “Bear”), is a Presbyterian minister. After high school, Sally attended Swarthmore College for three semesters, took physics courses at UCLA, and then entered Stanford University as a junior where she double majored in English and Physics. She continued on at Stanford for her graduate education, earning both her master’s degree and Ph.D. in Physics. In 1978, the same year she received her Doctorate, she was selected out of over 8,000 applicants as an astronaut candidate by NASA.

Sally attended flight school as part of her astronaut training. She enjoyed it so much that it became a regular hobby. Credit: Women@NASA

Sally spent the next year in astronaut training, studying parachute jumping, water survival, weightlessness, radio communications, and navigation. In fact, she enjoyed flight training so much that flying became one of her hobbies. During the second and third flights of the space shuttle Columbia, she worked on the ground as a communications officer, relaying messages from mission control to the shuttle crews. She was part of the team that developed the robot arm used by shuttle crews to deploy and retrieve satellites.

Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, experiencing zero gravity. Credit: Women@NASA

As part of the first-ever five-person Space Shuttle crew for the June 1983 STS-7 mission that made her the first American woman in space and the youngest American in space (at age 32) , Ride participated as the crew deployed satellites for Canada (ANIK C-2) and Indonesia (PALAPA B-1); operated the Canadian-built robot arm to perform the first deployment and retrieval with the Shuttle Pallet Satellite (SPAS-01); conducted the first formation flying of the shuttle with a free-flying satellite (SPAS-01); carried and operated the first U.S./German cooperative materials science payload (OSTA-2); and operated the Continuous Flow Electrophoresis System (CFES) and the Monodisperse Latex Reactor (MLR) experiments. In fact, during the mission Ride became the first woman to operate the shuttle’s robotic arm.

“The thing that I’ll remember most about the flight is that it was fun. In fact, I’m sure it was the most fun I’ll ever have in my life.” – Sally Ride on her first flight in space

Sally would go on to fly again with the 13th Shuttle mission, STS 41-G, which launched from Kennedy Space Center on October 5, 1984. She was assigned to fly again in 1986 on STS 61-M, but all mission training was halted in January after the Challenger explosion. Sally served on the Presidential Commission investigating the tragedy. After the investigation was completed, she was assigned to NASA headquarters as special assistant to the administrator for long-range and strategic planning. There she wrote an influential report entitled “Leadership and America’s Future in Space,” and became the first director of NASA’s Office of Exploration. She also served on the panel investigation the Columbia disaster in 2003; she’s the only person to have served on both investigative panels.

After she retired from NASA in 1987, Sally joined Stanford University Center for International Security and Arms Control. She later became a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego and she served as president of SPACE.com from 1999 to 2000. Driven by her belief and commitment to encourage young people, especially girls, to study science, she started the Sally Ride Science, a science outreach company, in 2001. She also wrote five science-related children’s books: To Space and Back; Voyager; The Third Planet; The Mystery of Marsand Exploring Our Solar System.

It goes without saying that Sally Ride was among the most influential American women of the 20th century. Her excitement about space and dedication to encouraging young people to study science has benefitted our country immensely. She will be remembered and missed. From all the countless children, boys and girls alike, who want to go to space, thank you Sally for boldly going where no American woman went before.

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