The world lost a shining light yesterday when Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, died from pancreatic cancer. She was only 61. She was born in Encino, CA in 1951 and was passionate about science and tennis in her youth. She received a bachelor’s degree in English and physics from Stanford and went on to get a PhD in physics, studying astrophysics and free electron laser physics. She responded to a newspaper ad recruiting for the space program and became one of the first women in the program in 1978.
She became an integral part of the space shuttle program and in 1983 became America’s first woman and, at 32, the youngest American in space. Over her NASA career she logged over 340 hours in space. She was the recipient of numerous awards including the National Space Society’s von Braun award. She retired from NASA in 1987 but remained active in education and science. She taught physics at UC San Diego and was director of the California Space Institute.
Ride’s most powerful legacy is Sally Ride Science, the program she launced in 2001. The mission of the organization is to
make a difference in girls’ lives, and in society’s perceptions of their roles in technical fields. Our school programs, classroom materials, and teacher trainings bring science to life to show kids that science is creative, collaborative, fascinating, and fun.
Sally Ride also wrote a number of science education books.
An intensely private person with a vibrant public persona, Ride encountered some real sexism even while she was celebrated. Early in her career, a journalist asked her if she was prone to crying when things went wrong. I bet they never asked John Glenn that question. While she celebrated her role as a pioneer, this scrutiny left her cautious about her personal life. As a result, no-one outside of her family knew she had cancer until her death. She was also very quiet about being a lesbian, although her partner, Dr. Tam O’Shaughnessy, worked closely with her. They were together for 27 years. Sadly, Tam O’Shaughnessy will not receive any Federal benefits such as social security, as heterosexual married couples do.