Muse: Astronaut Sally Ride
On June 18, 1983, 32-year-old NASA astronaut Sally Ride boarded the Space Shuttle Challenger as part of a five-person mission bound for galactic orbit. In doing so, she not only became the youngest American astronaut to travel into space, she would also become America’s first woman (two female Soviet cosmonauts had beaten them to it in 1963 and 1982 – so much for the space race!) At a press conference held prior to launch, Ride fielded all the important questions about space travel from presumably male journalists: Will the flight affect your reproductive organs? Do you weep when things go wrong on the job? Will you become a mother? Exasperated, she later observed: “It may be too bad that our society isn’t further along and that this is such a big deal.”
If anyone had the “right stuff”, it was Ride. Born in Los Angeles on May 26, 1951, Sally Ride attended local schools where she developed an interest in science, before entering Stanford University, where she earned a master’s and Ph.D for her work in astrophysics. In 1978, Ride was accepted into NASA’s space program, where she would serve as the ground-based capsule communicator for early Space Shuttle flights and help develop the shuttle’s robot arm.
Following her historic journey in 1983, Ride flew a second mission in 1984, though plans for a third were scuttled after the Challenger disaster in 1986. After leaving NASA in 1987, she became a professor of physics at the University of California and the director of the California Space Institute, leading the way in learning programs for kids and founding Sally Ride Science – a company that creates science programs for school students, with a focus on girls. She co-founded the latter with her long-term partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, whom she had met when the two were childhood tennis friends.
Ride and O’Shaughnessy’s 27-year relationship, which lasted until Ride’s death in 2012, was largely unknown to the wider community, but it wasn’t because they wanted it kept secret. “Sally had a very fundamental sense of privacy. It was just her nature,” Kate Ride reflected upon her sister’s death. “Sally’s very close friends, of course, knew of their love for each other.” Since Ride’s passing, the knowledge of her relationship has gone on to make her an even more inspirational figure for women – and especially queer women – in the traditionally male-dominated world of science.
Not that Ride was busy letting gender politics get in the way of her pioneering career. Asked back in 1983 whether her unprecedented flight would help demolish the barriers to women in space, Ride’s reply was typically matter of fact: “I honestly don’t have time to think about it,” she said. “I came into this because I wanted to fly in space.”