Sally Ride died young, at age 61 – but we’re still reaping the benefits of her dedication to U.S. space exploration as a physicist and NASA astronaut – and later, as the founder of Sally Ride Science, a still-thriving business that develops educational programs and materials for students in STEM fields.
An engaging new book, Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space, now shows that Ride fought and won other important battles that were being waged so quietly, we barely knew they existed.
Author and broadcast journalist Lynn Sherr thought she knew Ride well: The two shared a 30-year friendship that began in the early 1980s when Sherr covered NASA’s space shuttle program for ABC News and Sally Ride flew twice on Challenger, the first American woman in space at age 32. But when Ride passed away of pancreatic cancer in 2012, a seemingly tossed-off line at the end of her obituary said she’d spent her last 27 years in a committed relationship with a woman named Tam O’Shaughnessy.
Almost immediately Sherr felt dozens of questions percolating – and wanted to write Ride’s life story to answer them. “Sally died on July 23, 2012, and just a day and a half later I had a book contract [to tell her story],” said Sherr in an interview, adding she benefited from extensive interviews with Ride’s family and friends as well as access to her private journals and other affects.
Sherr says that Ride’s personal lifestyle was hardly the most notable thing about her, however. She shared the details, and the struggles, in a phone interview:
Sally Ride did not want to be a poster child for anything other than scientific excellence.
“Clearly her sexual orientation was a big part of her life. But her legacy is about the things she chose to be upfront about – the things she chose to lead on. Those were: space exploration, women’s issues, and sharing the joy of science and math with students.
“If the details of her private life had come out when she was alive, she probably would have lost the little bit of privacy she had left. She did not want to be labeled. Until Sally Ride passed away, I think the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘astronaut’ had never been in the same sentence.”
Ride was the right person at the right time to become the first American woman in space.
“As a baby boomer, she was born with all the stuff that went along with that. Her father was a purple heart in World War II and a committed Republican; her mother was a savvy, smart, witty woman who proudly canceled out her husband’s vote. They believed in education, in letting their daughters do what they wanted to do. Sally also benefited from two very important things in our society. One was the push for science after the Soviet Sputnik satellite flew in 1957 – suddenly there’s a big emphasis on science. Then she benefited from all the doors that were opened by the women’s movement. She never could have gotten to NASA had both these things not happened.”
She played a critical role in drumming up students’ interest in STEM fields.
“Neither of her parents had studied science, but when Sally announced she was interested in it, they said, ‘Terrific, wonderful, go for it.’ Once she got out into the world and became a leader in the space field, she began to see that girls were facing subtle discrimination or more overt discrimination – and wanted to address that.
“Forming her own company was the answer, and today Sally Ride Science is still going strong, with science festivals, teaching training academies and more. She wanted girls not to be in a situation – which many were – where a teacher or somebody else says, ‘Why are you studying that? That’s not for girls’ – the kind of subtle discrimination when someone says, ‘Wouldn’t you like English or French better?”’
She wanted America to break free of the ‘Einstein scientist’ stereotype.
“She didn’t want little kids to have this image of the scientist as a lone male in a white lab coat like Einstein, working in a basement. She wanted kids to feel the joy of solving a science or math problem and apply that joy to solving the problems of this planet.
“That is her biggest legacy. Certainly the fact that she was the first American woman in space – that her very bold role became a kind of ticket to success for women in many other fields – that will always be part of her story. But she went on to pay it forward.”
She brought excitement and vibrancy to science – and knew her responsibilities.
“There are girls involved in science firmly because of Sally Ride. NASA didn’t just open its doors to women because they thought it was a good idea – there was political pressure for government agencies. She benefited from that, she knew, and her genius was seizing opportunity. She was set on being an academic, and suddenly there came an opportunity to be an astronaut – she turns on a dime and says, ‘Hmm. I could do that.’ Off she goes and makes space history.
“But she didn’t get straight As in school. She had to work hard for her degrees, including her master’s and her Ph.D. in physics from Stanford. She was so focused – her Stanford roommate said she could study through a whistling tea kettle.”
She had plenty of money in the bank at the end of her life – which she’d earned through sheer hard work.
“Most of her money came from the speeches she gave after she had flown. She saved this money in a bank account – didn’t live high on the hog. She and Tam had a wonderful house but not over the top. They lived a modest life. She did make some money from being on boards. But this was in addition to her salary as a professor [at the University of California, San Diego], which was not very much, and her work on many government agencies, most of which were not paid. She did an awful lot of giveback. She never cashed in to pitch products – never endorsed cereals or anything like that.
“Her speeches were a source of pride for her, but for an introvert, making speeches did not come easy to her, even after years in the public eye. I saw her extensive notes, how she reworked them over and over again. Still, she became the most famous woman on the planet thanks to a government agency, she flew at taxpayer expense – and she absolutely fulfilled her role of giving back as a result of that. It took a lot from her – but she did it because she knew it was her job. That was Sally.”
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