Tag Archives: NASA

Farewell Sally Ride, Astronaut and Inspiration

24 Jul

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.

Black History 2012: Nichelle Nichols

10 Feb

Today we honor and celebrate a woman who has made her mark on television, space travel, and equal rights, Nichelle Nichols. Best known for her role as Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek series, Nichols has parlayed that initial cult status and eventual superstardom into a platform for making the world a better place for everyone–a true champion for social justice. She started her career in the brief lifespan of Oscar Brown, Jr.‘s civil rights musical Kicks & Co. Although the stage was her first love, she accepted an early television role from Gene Roddenberry. When he was casting Star Trek, he insisted on adding her to the cast as the communications officer.

As an equal officer on the command deck, Uhura was unprecedented: an African-American lead character who was not a servant. Nevertheless, feeling that the character was not as fully developed as her peers, Nichols planned to leave after the first season to return to Broadway. As she later recounted, she was encouraged to remain at the program when a fan of the show approached her at an NAACP function where she was speaking. That fan was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When she told him of her plans, he replied,

STOP! You cannot! You cannot leave this show! Do you not understand what you are doing?! You are the first non-stereotypical role in television…Nichelle, for the first time, not only our little children and people can look on and see themselves, but people who don’t look like us, people who don’t look like us, from all over the world, for the first time, the first time on television, they can see us, as we should be! As intelligent, brilliant, people! People in roles other than slick tap dancers, and maids, which are all wonderful in their own ways, but for the first time we have a woman, a WOMAN, who represents us and not in menial jobs, and you PROVE it.

Remaining on the series, she went on to be part of the first-ever scripted mixed-race kiss on television when Uhura and Captain Kirk were forced to kiss by telekinetic aliens. After the series was cancelled, she realized she had been bitten by the space bug. Along with her continued support of the NAACP, Nichols reached out to NASA. She participated in a number of their civilian programs and became a spokesman for the agency. She had started a company to further women’s rights, Women In Motion, and agreed to use that company to help recruit women and people of color to NASA. Her efforts were very successful, helping bring in such luminaries as Sally Ride and Charles Bolden, the first permanent African-American NASA Director.

Nichelle Nichols has gone on to act in all the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast, eventually seeing Uhura promoted to Commander. She has acted on Broadway and in other movies and television. Not content to be famous as an actor, however, she has made an important mark on the world stage, boldly going where no African-American television actress had gone before.

Celebrating Women’s History Month: March 20

20 Mar

Honoring Sally Ride

Today I would like to honor and pay tribute to Sally Ride. Ride is probably best known as the very first woman (and at that point youngest person) to enter space. Ride joined NASA in 1978 and in 1983 explored space on the Space Shuttle Challenger, helping break the gender barrier for astronauts. Ride helped to design the robot arm on the space shuttle.

I was fortunate enough to meet Ms. Ride while she was putting together Sally Ride Science, an educational program fostering both boys’ and girls’ interest in science, with a focus on drawing out girls in the field of science. She toured the Atlanta Girls’ School in 2001, the same year she founded Sally Ride Science. I honor Sally Ride for her work for gender equity in the field of science.

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