Nearly everyone dreams of being an astronaut at some point, but for the first 20 years of NASA’s existence, the U.S. only sent men into space. Dr. Sally Ride broke that tradition when she flew on the Challenger space shuttle in 1983.
Ride learned about the job opportunity of a lifetime as she was finishing her PhD in astrophysics at Stanford. She had already gotten a BS and MS in Physics and a BA in English from the same university and was looking for a job.
Armed with her strong physics background, she answered the newspaper ad. Out of the more than 8,000 applicants, Ride, five other women and 29 men became the astronaut class of January, 1978. The class was the first to include women.
During her training, Ride’s knowledge of physics proved valuable as she helped design a robotic arm for moving satellites and other payloads in and out of the space shuttle cargo hold.
After five years of training, Ride got her chance to fly on mission STS-7. Everyone involved was well aware of the importance of Ride’s presence on the mission.
Still, she faced opposition. The media especially proved difficult with their approach to the situation, focusing many of their questions to her not on her background in physics or role in the mission but on her emotions, appearance, and feminine care.
Ride found it sad that being the first American woman in space was a big deal. In an equal world, it would not have been the front page news that it was. NASA had opened the field, but as the press’ questions showed, the wider world had difficulty accepting women’s role as astronauts equal to their male counterparts.
The men who flew with her understood the importance of the knowledge and experience she brought, especially the robotic arm she helped design. During the mission, Ride successfully used the arm to unload and load a satellite from the shuttle.
She flew again in an eight day mission the next year and in 1986, she was preparing for a third flight when the Challenger’s fuel tank failed a little over a minute after take-off. The explosion and crash landing that followed killed all seven crew members, including teacher and civilian Christa McAuliffe.
After the disaster, NASA suspended the space shuttle program. President Regan appointed Ride to the panel that investigated what had gone wrong. The investigation found that O-rings used on the external fuel tank could fail in cold temperatures, like the morning of the launch.
Seventeen years later, in 2003, Ride served on the investigation panel after the Columbia space shuttle broke apart during re-entry. She was the only person to serve on both panels.
A year after the Challenger investigation, Ride retired from NASA. She worked for a time as a professor of physics at the University of California and as the President of Space.com.
In 2001, Ride founded Sally Ride Science, a nonprofit working to increase science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) literacy and encourage children to go into STEM careers. The company held festivals on college campuses, created books, and trained people directly at the Sally Ride Science Academy.
She also wrote children’s books about space and being an astronaut. Tam O’Shaughnessy, one of the co-founders of Sally Ride Science, co-wrote the books with Ride.
Ride devoted the last eleven years of her life to ensuring that girls (and all kids) saw STEM careers as a possibility for their future. It is easy to imagine her hoping that none of the students she was reaching out to would have to face the same unimportant and sexist press questions she had.
After eleven years of leading Sally Ride Science, Ride passed away from cancer in July, 2012.
O’Shaughnessy has been leading Sally Ride Science since Ride’s death, and continues to preserve Ride’s legacy and mission. It remains a force for STEM in schools, and has begun to also encourage education in art design (expanding STEM to STEAM). It is especially focused on helping girls and minorities, who are underrepresented in STEAM fields.
In Ride’s obituaries, O’Shaughnessy was listed as her life partner of 27 years. This was the first public acknowledgement of Ride’s sexuality.
Ride’s sexuality was not something she hid, but was also not a focus in her public life. O’Shaughnessy told Space.com that, while America seemed ready for its first female astronaut, it was not ready for its first lesbian astronaut when Ride first started at NASA.
In the days following her death, there was a lot of discussion about the importance of her sexuality. Some felt that she did not wish to be an LGBTQ icon, and that therefore focusing on her sexuality was a mistake. Others saw more practical reasons for her silence on the subject during her life. Still, even her death, Ride is an important figure not just for women in science but for the LGBTQ community as well.