By 1978, NASA needed to replace many of its aging veterans of the early space program, so it put out a call for 35 astronaut candidate positions. More than 10,000 applied. One of the few who made the cut was Sally Ride, a distinguished academic with advanced degrees in English and physics who turned down a professional tennis career to pursue science instead. Once accepted into the astronaut program, she became an expert pilot, communications officer and robotic arm operator.
Ride was a crew member on STS-7, the 1983 Challenger mission that would not only make her America’s first woman in space, but at 32 years old, America’s youngest as well. Ride returned to space on STS-41-G, a 1984 Challenger mission, and was set for a third space flight when the Challenger disaster in 1986 grounded the Shuttle program. Ride was named to the presidential commission to investigate the Challenger incident and was the only panelist who openly supported Roger Boisjoly, an engineer for the company that made Challenger’s rocket boosters and who tried in vain to warn that the booster’s seals were prone to failure.
Ride left NASA in 1987, and became a science fellow at the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University. In 1989, she became a professor of physics at the University of California San Diego and director of the California Space Institute. In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science, which developed educational materials for helping young students to develop their interest in science, technology, engineering and math, and to pursue careers in those fields. She served on numerous private and governmental boards, and was named to the accident investigation commission following the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003. Even after leaving NASA, she still continued to contribute to the space program, and was awarded the National Space Grant Distinguished Service Award earlier this year.
Ride was also known for guarding her privacy, and turned down numerous offers for commercial endorsements, memoirs and movies. While she is best-known for being the first American woman in space, it was a distinction she did not fly as a banner; instead, she carried herself less as a trailblazer and more as an advocate for science and space exploration who wanted children (especially girls) to know that they really could be anything they wanted to be. She was fond of reminding young students that if they were good at math in 3rd grade, they could be good at it in 10th grade, in college and beyond.
Ride died on July 23 after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 61. She is survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaugnessy; her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear; her niece, Caitlin; and her nephew, Whitney.
Ride leaves behind an America much changed; women going into space are no longer news, but there is no Shuttle program on which to take them. Following the Columbia disaster, the program was retired in 2010, leaving America without a means of manned space flight for the first time since 1961. Aerospace advocates argue that it is makes for poor budget-balancing indeed to cut a space program whose funding equals less than 3% of our defense funding and less than 2% of our Medicare and Medicaid funding. Those who look to private industry to return America to its place among the stars will undoubtedly have pioneers such as Ride to thank when the first private orbiter successfully completes its maiden voyage.
Ride was, by any objective measure, a hero to science and to the millions of children, both male and female, who were inspired by her space missions. This, in turn, made it doubly disappointing when detractors from across the political spectrum emerged after Ride’s death to marginalize her achievements. Some tried to write her off as a NASA publicity stunt with dubious credentials, or as a lesbian who did not do enough to campaign for marriage equality.
Both camps overlook a woman of remarkable intellect, skill and poise, who, when asked by reporters on the eve of her 1983 Space Shuttle mission if she might cry in space, simply wondered aloud why her mission pilot Rick Hauck (who later became a space insurance specialist, by the way) was not receiving the same questions. It would be that same Rick Hauck who, after Ride passed away, publicly remembered her as a colleague of uncommon distinction and grace, whose place in history—and the stars—was never bestowed. It was earned.