Sally Ride was the first American woman in space in 1983, and the third woman in space overall, after USSR cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova (1963) and Svetlana Savickaja (1982). She was the youngest American astronaut and the first LGBTIQ person in space. But, who was Sally Ride the person? What challenges did she face in her career? What should we know about her?

Sally Ride was born on May 26, 1951 in Encino, California. 
As a teenager she excelled in tennis but also had a passion for physics and languages. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in English and physics from Stanford University. At Stanford, in 1978, she earned a PhD in physics while doing research on the interaction of X-rays with the interstellar medium. Astrophysics and free electron lasers were her specific areas of study. If that is not impressive enough, Ride joined NASA later that same year.

Ride was selected to be an astronaut as part of NASA Astronaut Group 8 in 1978, the first class ever to select women. NASA received 8,000 applications and eventually Ride was one of 35 selected.

 

After graduating NASA training in 1979, Ride became eligible to work as a NASA mission specialist and she served as the ground-based capsule communicator (CapCom) for the second and third Space Shuttle flights. Ride also helped develop the Space Shuttle ́s robot arm (Canadarm).

Sexism as the norm 

Prior to her first space flight, media paid attention to Ride ́s gender and she was asked such questions as, “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?” and “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” These questions are indicative of their time and the pervasive sexism in media and society. 
Ride, however, insisted that she only saw herself as an astronaut, regardless of her gender.

The media focused on Ride because it was “shocking” for a woman to go into space. In practice, this meant that Ride was getting stupid questions on a daily basis that her fellow astronauts were not being asked. NASA had never been faced with the issue of a woman in space and since the NASA team was mostly made up of men, couldn ́t, for example, estimate how many tampons Ride would need on the mission (they settled on a hundred).

NASA also asked Ride to create the first “space make-up kit” as if that was an important issue to Ride or the mission. Sally’s first mission was STS-7, which was also the 7th space shuttle mission and 2 Challenger shuttle missions. The mission was launched on June 18, 1983. Quite a few people who attended this launch wore T-shirts with the words “Ride, Sally, Ride”, which is a verse from the R&B song “Mustang Sally” by Wilson Pickett. She is the youngest American in space to date – she was 32 years old on her first mission.

Following this mission, Sally was on STS-41-G in 1984. In total, she spent 343 hours in space. Later, Ride was named to the Roger ́s Commission, the presidential commision investigating the Challenger disaster and headed its subcommitte on operations. Ride was the only person to serve on both investigative panels investigating the Shuttle accidents (Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003). 
Regarding the obstacle of sexism within NASA , there is one small story. Ride received a letter from a female lawyer, Linda Halpern, congratulating Ride on being the first American woman in space. Halpern also included in the letter, a response from NASA to Halpern ́s letter, written in 1962, asking how she could become an astronaut. The response was that NASA had no intention of taking women on space missions because of “the required level of scientific and aerospace training and physical characteristics.”
This letter obviously moved Ride and served as a reminder of her accomplishment. NASA’s Linda Halpern response can be found at the link here.

Private life and writing career: The science advocate

Sally Ride guarded her personal life closely. She married fellow astronaut Steve Hawley in 1982. They divorced in 1987. After Ride ́s death in 2012, her obituary revealed that her partner of 27 years was Tam O ́Shaughnessy, a professor at San Diego State Univeristy. The two had been childhood friends and had met when both were aspiring tennis players. Ride and O’Shaughnessy co-authored six children ́s science books. These are popular science books that tell children and young people about the Earth, about climate change and the solar system. The titles are as follows; Mission: Planet Earth, Mission: Save the Planet, The Mystery of Mars, Exploration of the Solar System, Third Planet, and Voyager: An Adventure to the Edge of the Solar System. 
Ride ́s sister confirmed the relationship and said that her sister had chosen to keep her personal life private. Ride is the first known LBGT astronaut.The number of awards and honors given to Sally Ride makes a long list, but there is still a bit of bitterness when it comes to thinking what she endured, how much of an underdog ability to come up with.
Yet, those who walk in the ways of the beaten path do not turn on the light of those who come.
In 2017, LEGO launched a Sally Ride figurine, and in 2019, Mattel similarly launched a Barbie doll resembling Sally Ride.

 

 

Sally Ride passed away on July 23, 2012 at the age of 61, from pancreatic cancer. The 2017 NASA’s Astronaut Class was named after her.

 

This article is part of the project “US scientist who changed the world”, grant donor US Embassy BiH.
Translated by Jonas Helgason, volunteer.

 

 

 

  Author:

Jelena Kalinić, MA in comparative literature and graduate biologist, science journalist and science communicator, has a WHO infodemic manager certificate and Health metrics Study design & Evidence based medicine training. Winner of the 2020 EurekaAlert (AAAS) Fellowship for Science Journalists. Short-runner, second place in the selection for European Science journalist of the year for 2022.