Photo above by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center
71 years ago today, Sally Ride was welcomed into the world by her parents, Joyce and Dale, who in the words of her sister, Bear, “always encouraged us to study hard, to do our best and to be anything we wanted to be.” Growing up in Encino, California, Sally was a stellar student with an early fervor for science and math. She was also a strong athlete, having earned a tennis scholarship to Westlake School for Girls, a university prep school in Los Angeles. Upon graduation, she attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania to play on the college tennis team.
Despite her first mention in the New York Times in 1969 being the result of an impressive tennis achievement and her decision to leave Swarthmore for the University of California to pursue a professional tennis career, she ultimately committed to academia and science, earning her Master’s and PhD in Physics from Stanford University. In 1977, while at Stanford, Sally, who had been interested in astrophysics since high school, saw an ad in the school paper that NASA was recruiting female and minority astronauts. Not surprisingly, she jumped at the opportunity and immediately applied. She was one of six women selected for the 1978 astronaut class (35 students total). She obviously excelled in her training, as at age 32, she became the first American woman to travel to space aboard the Challenger when it launched its second mission from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 18th, 1983.
Being the first American woman to travel to space rocketed Sally into stardom — a position she did not enjoy (more on that later!) A testament to the times, she was regularly teased about whether her primary role for going up in space was “to cook for the men.” This suggestion couldn’t have been more inaccurate. Sally completed all of the same training as the men, and performed the same roles on the space shuttle.
In fact, one of her main jobs was maneuvering the robotic arm to launch satellites into space. You can see a video of her operating the arm here. NASA acknowledged the distribution of this team—the first to include a woman—with an emblem that they wore as a patch on their uniforms (shown below). The same four symbols for the men, and a unique symbol for the first female American astronaut, Sally.
Sally truly broke the “glass ceiling” for American female astronauts. Not surprisingly, her incredible achievements established her as an icon for equity and inspired the creation of slogans such as, “A woman in space today, equality tomorrow” and “Ride, Sally, Ride.” The latter was chanted with zeal by the crowds during the Challenger’s takeoff in 1983, and is actually the chorus from “Mustang Sally.” Want to set the mood while you finish the post? Listen to Wilson Pickett belt it out and inadvertently cheer Sally on here.
Sally eventually left NASA in 1987 and took a teaching position at University of California San Diego. This change supported her to follow one of her biggest passions in life —encouraging young people, particularly girls, to pursue STEM
For example, she started NASA’s EarthKAM project, which allows middle school students to take pictures of Earth from a camera on the International Space Station. She has also authored many science books and textbooks, including a tale of her trip to space, To Space and Back. Sally was so committed to this cause that in 2001, she co-founded and co-led, Sally Ride Science, with her life partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy. Sally Ride Science’s efforts are focused on promoting STEM in students by providing professional development opportunities for K-12 teachers, classroom activities and cool science workshops for students, women in leadership events, an education channel, and awards for female student-athletes. They are always looking for instructors, in case you share Sally’s position for promoting STEM in kids.
Being the first American woman to travel to space is not Sally’s only first, she is also the first acknowledged gay astronaut. The news of her being gay was revealed after her passing through her obituary, and thus, she has been criticized by some for not “coming out” and serving as an LGBTQ+ advocate while alive. Yet, those close to Sally emphasized that she did not actively hide her sexual orientation, rather not discussing herself was part of her M.O. She was widely known for her reticence. For example, during a PBS NOVA interview when asked,”Why do you want to go into outer space?” she landed on, “I don’t know what the reason is,” she said. “It’s just something that’s inside people that they can’t explain.” In the same vein, she chose to go by “Sally” on her astronaut uniform badge, as opposed to her full name. One option here that may be more productive than focusing on the action of one individual may be for us all to consider workplace culture and how we can collectively foster environments where individuals feel supported to be their authentic selves, and in the spirit of this blog, show themselves from the inside-out ;)
With that in mind, Earth truly lost a bright star when Sally passed away on 07/23/2012 at the age of 61 after a 17-month long bout with pancreatic cancer. When I was thinking about what to post this week and sifting through ideas, I stumbled upon Sally Ride’s birthday being today. My first sentiment was “Oh, that is a tired old story. Everyone knows about her already. Are you sure it is worth regurgitating the same old facts?” Then, I saw this line, “Sally Ride never became a celebrity — she was always a high-profile geek” and changed my mind! I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling energized and ready to move some of my own projects forward after reading about this incredible woman. Her focused attitude and perseverance served her well, and I’m off to channel some of it. Seems like Sally is still meeting her goal of promoting STEM engagement in women, even now!
And that’s the latest does of InsideOut – until next time, be well!
Contributed by: Natalie Gilmore
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