Back in 1983, when Sally Ride became the first American woman in space as a crew member on the space shuttle Challenger, the California-born astronaut shattered the glass ceiling of gender discrimination in a spectacular way.
Nearly three decades later, space travel has reached a level of equality that a woman astronaut such as Peggy Whitson actually can command a space station mission without making headlines. But the passage of time has made it easy to forget the height of the barriers overcome by Ride, who died at age 61 on Monday in San Diego after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
- Ride might have become a professional tennis star instead of an astronaut. At Stanford University in the early 1970s, Ride was the No. 1 women’s singles player on the school team, and earned a national ranking. At a summer tennis camp where she taught, she met Billie Jean King, who urged her to quit school and try the professional tennis circuit. Ride chose not to take that advice, and instead went on to earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Stanford in 1978. She later often jokingly said that she chose science over tennis because she had a weak forehand and hated to practice. But as her mother explained to an interviewer in 1983, the real reason was that she was too strong-willed: “it offended her that the ball wouldn’t go just where she wanted.”
- She handled dumb, sexist questions gracefully. As columnist Ellen Goodman complained in a 1983 column, Ride was subjected to a media hazing that would seem almost unimaginable today, with queries about everything from her underwear to her maternity plans. A Time magazine reporter asked her if she wept when things went wrong, and she had to explain to ABC News how the shuttle was equipped with a privacy curtain so that she could use the toilet. And while Johnny Carson joked that the flight might be delayed because Ride had to find a purse to match her shoes, in real life the astronaut was so uninterested in fashion that she eschewed makeup and jewelry, and even wore slacks at her 1982 wedding to fellow astronaut Steven Hawley (they later divorced). “It’s too bad this is such a big deal,” she once explained at a NASA press conference. “It’s too bad our society isn’t further along.”
- Ride was picked for the mission because of her skills, not her gender. After getting her Ph.D. from Stanford, Ride reportedly applied to NASA after seeing an ad in a newspaper. So did a lot of others, apparently, because the space program had 8,000 applicants that year. Only 35 were accepted, including six women. One was Ride. While training as an astronaut, Ride also worked for the agency as a physicist and engineer, and she helped develop a robotic arm for use in retrieving space satellites. Challenger commander Robert Crippen chose Ride for the 1983 mission in large part because of her expertise with the device.
- She had to share the spotlight with an ant farm. In a radio address after the flight, then-President Ronald Reagan praised Ride’s achievement as “another example of the great strides women have made in our country.” Reagan added that the flight was momentous for another reason: The shuttle also carried into space a colony of 150 carpenter ants, as part of a science experiment by students at two New Jersey high schools. That probably suited Ride, who would go on to start a company that created classroom materials for science classes and sponsored science camps for girls
- After making history, Ride had a bunch of other careers. Ride served on the crew of a second shuttle flight in 1984, which turned out to be her final trip into space. Two years later, she served on a commission that investigated the 1986 explosion that destroyed the Challenger. In 1987 she joined the Stanford faculty, and later moved to the University of California at San Diego, where she also headed the California Space Institute. In addition to operating her own educational company, Ride also co-authored several children’s books for about space, science and the environment. In her 2009 book Mission Planet Earth: Our World and Its Climate – and How Humans Are Changing Them, Ride presented recent scientific findings about the pace and effects of global warming, written in a manner that middle school students could understand.
- She also may well have been the first gay astronaut. In the obituary posted on her website, Ride for the first time informed the world of her sexual orientation by prominently mentioning her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy, a retired San Diego State University psychology professor who worked with Ride in her science education company and co-authored several books with her. While their relationship was no secret to those who knew them, the soft-spoken Ride preferred to keep her orientation private rather than become a spokesperson for gay rights. “She’s just like, you probably don’t know what her politics are, either,” her sister, Rev. Karen “Bear” Scott, explained in an interview yesterday. “It’s a family matter. That wasn’t her battle of choice – the battle of choice was science education for kids. ” In the end, though, Ride decided to out herself, and as longtime gay activist Michelangelo Signorile noted in this tribute, instantly became “a great American success story” for gay Americans. But like her other accomplishments, the soft-spoken astronaut chose to do it matter-of-factly, without much ado.
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