R.I.P Sally Ride, America’s First Female Astronaut
so long and thanks for all the fish
It was merely a month ago that we were jointly celebrating two occasions: Liu Yang becoming China’s first female taikonaut, and the twenty-ninth anniversary of Sally Ride‘s inaugural voyage on the Challenger shuttle, the one that made her the third woman to go to space, and the first one to be put there by the American space program. Yesterday evening we received the sad news: Sally Ride has succumbed to pancreatic cancer after a two-year illness, dying at the age of sixty-one.
Ride was born on May 26th, 1951 in California’s San Fernando Valley. Physician, medical journalist, and classmate Susan Okie told NPR’s Morning Report (audio embed at the bottom of this post), “She prided herself on being an underachiever,” but like many kids you might know (or might have been), her grades were not a particularly good yardstick of her self. “She was brilliant. She was really good at math and science. She was also good at English, she always was a terrific writer.” Ride attended Swarthmore and UCLA before settling at Stanford, where she earned a bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. in physics… and a bachelor’s degree in english.
She joined NASA in 1978, attracted by the organization’s very first campaign to attract female astronauts (a initiative in which Nichelle Nichols, yes, Uhura, was involved), and on June 18th, 1983, she made her first famous flight, deploying two communications satellites using a robot arm. According to the Muppet Wiki, who have not steered us wrong yet, Ride was a friend of long-time Muppets writer Jerry Juhl, and, as told by puppet designer Faz Fazakas, she had her hands on the animatronic rigs puppeteers used to pilot Doozer vehicles in Fraggle Rock before she ever got her hands on a robot arm in space. On a related note, here’s Ride on Sesame Street in 1984:
After her career at NASA, Ride became a fellow at the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University, a professor of physics at the University of California San Diego, and devoted herself to science education. In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science, a company dedicated to providing engaging science texts and curriculum for young girls and boys. Said Ride of science education in May:
We must start early with students. In fact, fourth through eighth grade is critical. This is the age where many students, particularly girls and minorities, begin to disengage from these subjects. They feel and internalize the influences of peer pressure, popular culture, and society’s expectations. Science isn’t cool, negative stereotypes persist about scientists, mathematicians and engineers, and studying hard is rarely celebrated on reality TV or in pop music. In fact, my organization targets teachers in this critical grade range for precisely these reasons.
Today, women represent less than 25% of all STEM jobs — in spite of holding nearly half of all jobs in the United States. Getting more students — girls and minorities in particular — excited about and engaged in STEM studies starts with inspirational teachers.
Ride is survived by her mother, sister, niece, nephew, and partner of twenty-seven years Tam O’Shaughnessy. Together, O’Shaughnessy and Ride managed Sally Ride Science and co-authored a number of science texts for young students. Due to Ride’s desire to keep her personal life private, the announcement of Ride’s passing on Sally Ride Science’s website is the first time their relationship has been publicly confirmed. Naturally, Ride is also survived by the millions of women who she inspired with her accomplishments.
In memory of Ride, Sally Ride Science asks that instead of condolences or flowers, that donations be made to the Sally Ride Pancreatic Cancer Initiative. We would add, that if you’re feeling all the Sally Ride feels and don’t know what to do about it, you could do worse than to visit F*ck Yeah, Female Astronauts! for a number of inspiring pictures and quotes from women in space of all nations.