Ride, Sally Ride

July 24, 2012

Brit Trogen


Sally Ride, the first American woman to go to space, passed away yesterday after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer. Ride became a hero for millions of women around the world when she was chosen by NASA to be their first female astronaut.


It wasn't an entirely smooth ride, but she ultimately fluorished, helping to develop the space shuttle's robotic arm and later serving on the investigating panels for both Challenger and Columbia. She dedicated her post-space life to promoting science, math and technology, particularly among young girls.


From her obituary in the New York Times:


But there were still rough spots. Speaking to reporters before the first shuttle flight, Dr. Ride — chosen in part because she was known for keeping her cool under stress — politely endured a barrage of questions focused on her sex: Would spaceflight affect her reproductive organs? Did she plan to have children? Would she wear a bra or makeup in space? Did she cry on the job? How would she deal with menstruation in space?


The CBS News reporter Diane Sawyer asked her to demonstrate a newly installed privacy curtain around the shuttle’s toilet. On “The Tonight Show,” Johnny Carson joked that the shuttle flight would be delayed because Dr. Ride had to find a purse to match her shoes.


At a NASA news conference, Dr. Ride said: “It’s too bad this is such a big deal. It’s too bad our society isn’t further along.”


The Soviets had already sent two women into space. When one came aboard a space station, a male cosmonaut welcomed her by saying the kitchen and an apron were all ready for her.


Despite the very real prejudice she faced, Ride relished the opportunity to counter many of the stereotypes that persisted about women in science at the time. She talks about her experience in the shuttle in this delightfully retro video:



But Ride may become a hero in a whole different sense after death; the obituary posted on the website of her foundation, Sally Ride Science, acknowledged a decades-long partnership with Dr. Tam O'Shaughnessy, the COO of her company. Ride may not have been the first woman in space, but she was certainly the first gay woman. 


In life, Sally Ride stood as a symbol of courage, brains and believing in the impossible. It seems only fitting that even in death, she continues to trailblaze. 



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