(This post first appeared on Rhyme et Reason.)
Like many girls born in the 1980s, Sally Ride was the first contemporary trailblazing American woman whose name I learned in elementary school, several years after her historic 1983 mission to space. Knowing only one fact about her – that she was the first woman to go into space and orbit the Earth – was enough to confuse me (why did it take so long to send a woman?), and generate a sense of unexplained pride (she was the first!) and a neat feeling of coincidence (I was born days before her historic flight).
So, it was with sadness that I read of Sally Ride’s death yesterday at her home in La Jolla, Ca., from pancreatic cancer. She was 61 years old. The obituaries and photos in every major newspaper give a more complete picture of her as a person beyond her historic mission on the space shuttle Challenger. Ride, a theoretical astrophysicist, rarely gave interviews and said she never intended to become a symbol of progress for women, although she acknowledged that the women’s movement paved her way to becoming an astronaut. Ride kept her cool when speaking to reporters before the 1983 flight as they asked her infuriating, pointless and sexist questions: Would spaceflight affect her reproductive organs? Did she plan to have children? How would she deal with menstruation in space?
But Ride became a symbol of women’s progress and later encouraged girls to pursue math and science through Sally Ride Science, writing children’s books and founding the Challenger Center for Space Science Education in Alexandria, Va. News of her death also stated that Ride, a private person who had been married once before, was survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy. With that brief, public coming out statement, Sally Ride made history once again.
Godspeed, Sally Ride.
Watch an archived ABC news clip of Sally Ride’s return to Earth on the Challenger:
ABCNEWS.COM – Challenger shuttle carrying the first woman in space safely lands in California.