We need more adventurers like Sally Ride. The first American woman in space, Sally Ride immediately became a household name and a beacon of inspiration for women of all ages when she flew on the seventh Space Shuttle mission. At a time when it seemed that one of the basic criteria for becoming an astronaut was to be male, Ride opened a new chapter as an explorer. Ride’s selection as the first American woman in space was a clear indicator of NASA’s acknowledgement of the importance of diversity. Since her first flight in 1983, more than 40 women have become NASA astronauts. Clearly, she inspired women to pursue the high call to space and likely inspired scores more to pursue careers in science and technology fields.
Ride was finishing her doctorate in astrophysics at Stanford University in 1977 when she saw a NASA ad calling for astronaut candidates in the Stanford student newspaper. She applied immediately and when selected for astronaut training two years later, was among a group of 35 chosen (including five other women) from over 8000 applicants.
For Ride, when this unique opportunity presented itself, she saw it as a career possibility she couldn’t resist. After all, her parents supported her childhood interest in science by providing a telescope for her; she was 10 years old when Alan Shepard became the first American in space, 11 when John Glenn flew his three orbits and 18 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon. So by the time she was studying astrophysics and saw the ad calling for astronaut candidates for the then-new space shuttle program, she realized this was her chance to be on the cutting edge of space exploration, to participate in the adventure of a lifetime.
Flying on two shuttle missions as a mission specialist, her duties included performing experiments and launching and retrieving satellites. Her third flight assignment was cancelled due to the explosion of shuttle Challenger in 1986. Later, she would be the only person to serve on the disaster review board for both shuttles Challenger and Columbia. Among her many other achievements and appointments, she served as a member of the president’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology and the National Research Council’s Space Studies Board.
She was a frequent guest speaker at science museums and conferences around the world. This was probably an outgrowth of her strong advocacy of better science educational experiences for kids, especially for girls. I had several conversations with Ride about ways to improve science education during her visits to the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia where I am Chief Astronomer and a Senior Science Educator. While some have described Ride as an ‘absent heroine,’ I found her to be quite the opposite, in that she regularly demonstrated her understanding of being a role model by visiting schools, writing books, giving speeches and in 2001 founding ‘Sally Ride Science,’ a company ‘dedicated to supporting girls’ and boys’ interest in science, math and technology’ and more specifically aims ‘to make a difference in girls’ lives and in society’s perception of their roles in technological fields.’ Well beyond the end of her space career, Ride used her knowledge, experiences, intellect, celebrity and influence to help others, particularly children, better understand and appreciate science.
Today we see a space program much evolved from the time when Ride was flying. We have a fully operational space station; the Chinese have a space station and plans to visit the moon by 2020; private companies now offer flights to the edge of space for $200,000 and NASA is on the verge of ‘outsourcing’ some of its basic operations. Ride spent over fourteen days in space — not a record by any means, but she leveraged what time she did spend in space to become a truly inspirational leader, showing kids, particularly girls, what they can achieve in the exciting fields of sci-tech through desire, education and dedication. She demonstrated that if you want to, you can become an explorer, an adventurer, and even can blaze trails, opening doors for others, and that it can all be done in a quiet, dignified manner while maintaining a personal life.
Her legacy carries on well beyond what she could have ever imagined in the lives she changed with her pioneering spirit.
Ad Astra Sally K. Ride!