Women of History: Sally Ride

When I was 8 years old, the film Apollo 13 came out.  I was immediately fascinated with the space program and its history.  My main focus was on the programs prior to the space shuttle so I never looked into the history of the space shuttle outside of general missions before recently.  However, one of my personal ‘heroes’ was Sally Ride, and I decided for this week to feature the first american woman in space.

Sally Kristen Ride was born on May 26, 1951 in Los Angeles, California. Her parents, while not scientists themselves, promoted her interest in exploring. When she was 12, she was able to see the first female cosmonaut in space, Valentina Tereshkova, take her turn.  It would be 1982 before another woman would enter space.

After graduating from a private high school she attended on tennis scholarship, she attended Swarthmore College.  Eventually she would transfer to Stanford University, where she would earn her bachelor degree in both english and Physics.  She continued her education in physics, eventually gaining her PhD in Physics in 1978.  Her main focus was lasers and astrophysics.

While finishing her doctorate, she answered an advertisement seeking applicants for NASA.  She was chosen to join in 1978, and would continue to be a part of NASA’s team for the next several decades. Her class of astronauts were the first to include women, and she was one of six. She didn’t immediately get on a shuttle.  Her first positions were as a communicator between the ground and the capsule for the second and third space shuttle flights (Columbia STS-2 and STS-3) in the early eighties.  She was also on the team to develop some of the technology that would be installed in later Shuttles, such as the Canada-Arm robotic arm.

In 1982, the USSR launched another woman into space, this time Svetlana Savitskaya.   It would be the following year that Sally got to be the first American woman to reach earth orbit.  Her first mission was the Challenger STS-7 mission.

Like every other astronaut she prepared for her mission, and did press conferences.Prior to the launch in June,  Sally did a press run.  People were fascinated with how a woman would deal with the rigors of space travel – although several questions were sexist in nature.  She was asked about her reproductive cycle, and if she cried if things went wrong. People at NASA wondered if she needed a 100 tampons on her trip.

On June 18, 1983, the Challenger launched and was in orbit for nearly seven days (returning to earth on June 24th).  Sally was on board with four other crew members, all but one rookies, and together they launched several satellites, and conducted experiments.  It also allowed her to use the arm she helped design. Overall it was a successful mission.

A year later, in 1984, Sally traveled into space again on the Challenger STS-41-G.  This mission lasted for nearly 9 days.  It was also a mission with several firsts.  It was the first time two women had served on the same mission (Sally and Kathryn Sullivan), and it also contained two foreign astronauts.  It was also a crew of seven, the most crew members that the shuttle had held to that point.  An IMAX camera was used to film the flight, and the footage was later used in the film ‘The Dream is Alive’.

Sally’s third mission was scheduled for the summer of 1986, but was cancelled when tragedy struck in January.  On January 28, 1986 the Challenger was launched, but never made it to orbit.  the ship exploded in mid-flight, leading to the deaths of all on board.  For the next two years, missions were scrubbed and a in-depth investigation took place to prevent it from happening again.  Sally was assigned to one of the teams investigating the operations.

After the end of the investigation, Sally was put in charge of putting together an Office of Exploration in DC and making plans for the future of NASA after such a tragedy.  This would be her last assignment for NASA, choosing to go into education afterwards.  However, it was not her last involvement with the agency.

In 1987 she started to work at Stanford as part of the Center for International Security and Arms control, and two years later she became a professor of physics at the University of California in San Diego.  She also became involved with NASA’s outreach programs to educate students and promote science and exploration. This would become a focus of Sally’s public life in the 90s and 2000s.

In 1985, she became involved with the love of her life, Tam O’Shaughnessy.  They had been long time friends, and their romantic relationship was kept private from the general public who didn’t know until after Sally’s death 27 years later.  Sally had been married once before, to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley, but that had ended in divorce in 1987.

Their relationship was also a professional one.  Sally and Tam wrote several children’s science books over the years, and founded the Sally Ride Science organization in 2001 which promoted education and women in STEM occupations.  After Sally’s death, Tam would continue to run the organization.  The organization also ran the Sally Ride Science Festival, an event to promote science.

Sally would also be the president of Space.Com (One of the sources below)

Sally would once again be asked to be part of the investigation of a tragedy, this time the disintegration of the Columbia spacecraft in February 1, 2003.  She was the only person to have served on both investigations.

Sally was private about her personal life, including when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in early 2011.  On July 23, 2012 she died in her home in California.

After her death, she received several honors for her space travel and promotion of education and science.  President Barack Obama presented her posthumously with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, and during that same year she was honored by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.  She received the highest honor given by the Space Foundation with General James E. Hill Lifetime Space Achievement Award.

Perhaps Sally’s most important legacy is the one she has as woman.  Girls, like myself, grew up knowing they could make in space and in the science fields.  She promoted women in the STEM fields, and the education of children in space related sciences.  She also became posthumously a hero for the LGBTIA community.

In May 2018, the US Postal Service will be releasing a stamp in her honor.  This June will be the 35th Anniversary of her first mission into space.

Further Reading:

Wikipedia: Sally Ride
Wikipedia: STS-7
Wikipedia: STS-41-G /STS-17
Wikipedia: STS-61-M
Space.Com: Sally Ride
Sally Ride Science @ UC San Diago
NASA Biography: Sally K. Ride
A Brief History of menstruating in space
US Post Office Sally Ride Stamp