NASA Mourns The Passing of Pioneering Astronaut Sally Ride

 Famous astronaut Sally Ride has died in hospital after a 17 month battle with pancreatic cancer.In a space agency filled with trailblazers, Sally K. Ride was a pioneer of a different sort.

The soft-spoken California physicist broke the gender barrier 29 years ago when she rode to orbit aboard space shuttle Challenger to become America’s first woman in space. “Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism – and literally changed the face of America’s space program,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “The nation has lost one of its finest leaders, teachers and explorers. Our thoughts and prayers are with Sally’s family and the many she inspired. She will be missed, but her star will always shine brightly.”

“Sally was a personal and professional role model to me and thousands of women around the world,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. “Her spirit and determination will continue to be an inspiration for women everywhere.”

Ride’s contribution to America’s space program continued right up until her death at age 61 this week. After two trips to orbit aboard the shuttle, she went on an award-winning academic career at the University of California, San Diego, where her expertise and wisdom were widely sought on matters related to space.

She holds the distinction of being the only person to serve as a member of both investigation boards following NASA’s two space shuttle accidents. She also served as a member of the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, also known as the Augustine Committee, in 2009, which informed many of the decisions about NASA’s current human spaceflight programs.

Sally ride and crewmates

However, Ride’s place in history was assured on June 18, 1983 when she rocketed into space on Challenger’s STS-7 mission with four male crewmates.“The fact that I was going to be the first American woman to go into space carried huge expectations along with it,” Ride recalled in an interview for the 25th anniversary of her flight in 2008. “That was made pretty clear the day that I was told I was selected as a crew.

I was taken up to Chris Kraft’s office. He wanted to have a chat with me and make sure I knew what I was getting into before I went on the crew. I was so dazzled to be on the crew and go into space I remembered very little of what he said.”

“On launch day, there was so much excitement and so much happening around us in crew quarters, even on the way to the launch pad,” Ride said. “I didn’t really think about it that much at the time . . . but I came to appreciate what an honor it was to be selected to be the first to get a chance to go into space.”

Ride joined NASA as part of the 1978 astronaut class, the first to include women. She and five other women, along with 29 men, were selected out of 8,000 applicants. The class became known as the “Thirty-Five New Guys” and reported to the Johnson Space Center the next summer to begin training. Ride trained for five years before she and three of her classmates were assigned to STS-7. The six-day mission deployed two communications satellites and performed a number of science experiments.

Sally Ride, America's first woman astronaut co...

Sally Ride, America's first woman astronaut communitcates with ground controllers from the Shuttle flight deck. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following that historic flight, Ride returned to space on another shuttle mission, STS-41G in 1984. The 8-day mission deployed the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite, conducted scientific observations of Earth, and demonstrated potential satellite refueling techniques.

She was assigned to a third flight, but transitioned to a role on the Rogers Commission that investigated the Challenger accident after that shuttle was lost in January 1986.

When the investigation was completed, she accepted a job as a special assistant to the NASA administrator for long range and strategic planning.

Ride left NASA in August 1987 to join the faculty at the University of California, San Diego, as a professor of physics and director of the University of California’s California Space Institute.

In 2001, she founded her own company, Sally Ride Science, to pursue her long-time passion of motivating girls and young women to pursue careers in science, math and technology.

A native of Los Angeles, Ride graduated from high school there in 1968 and enrolled at Stanford University. At Stanford, she earned four degrees, including a doctorate in physics in 1978. She also was an accomplished athlete who played varsity tennis at Stanford after being nationally ranked as a youth.

Ride received numerous honors and awards during the course of her career. Most notably, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame, and received the Jefferson Award for Public Service, the von Braun Award, the Lindbergh Eagle, and the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award.


Why Canonize Sally Ride as a Gay Hero?

I got to interview astronaut and physics profe...

I got to interview astronaut and physics professor Dr. Sally Ride today. We talked about her new company Sally Ride Science . I'll have it posted on Conference Connections soon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Space, it turns out, is not the final frontier. In death Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly into space, came out twice — as a person who had been fighting pancreatic cancer and someone who had been in a long-term relationship with another woman.

There is something truly poignant about coming out in your obituary. She was survived, we were told by “Tam O’Shaugnessy, her partner of 27 years.” (She had also been married to a male astronaut for five years.)

Who knows if Sally Ride thought of herself as lesbian or bisexual? Or what she felt about the debate around same-sex marriage? But the words “partner of 27 years” feel bitterly like the title of the 1989 film about the devastation of AIDS — Longtime Companion.

When it comes to names gay and lesbian people can give their partners, the needle has not moved that much.

Sally Ride, by all accounts a truly private person, was a reluctant celebrity. She didn’t want any great hoopla about being the first American woman in space. She knew two Russian women had already gone there before her.

One, her obituary in the New York Times reported, was welcomed by a male cosmonaut who said the kitchen and her apron were ready for her. “Sally had a very fundamental sense of privacy, it was just her nature, because we’re Norwegians, through and through,” her sister Bear Ride told BuzzFeed.

Surely Sally Ride would have shuddered at being made the grand marshal of some ticker tape Gay Pride parade. Now in death, she has been embraced as a role model and icon.

A Hero’s Profile

This is what a lesbian looks like: Sally Ride: physicist; author of seven science books for children; member of the space shuttle Challenger crew; member of the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology; director of the California Science Institute; inductee into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the California Hall of Fame, the Aviation Hall of Fame, and the Astronaut Hall of Fame; recipient of the Jefferson Award for Public Service, the von Braun Award, the Lindbergh Eagle, the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award, and the NASA Space Flight Medal (twice).

Sally Ride was not closeted to those who knew her. But her “battle of choice,” her sister said, was not Chick-fil-A and Boy Scouts but science education for children. We should respect that and not posthumously canonize her as a lesbian hero. While being lesbian might not be a choice, being out is a choice. And being out as a gay role model is certainly be a choice. Why foist on her in death what she did not want to wear on her sleeve in life?

But her quiet coming out in death is a reminder of something larger than Sally Ride’s personal life. It is a reminder that even if President Obama says he supports same-sex marriage and Hillary Clinton champions gay rights across the world, and the American Center sponsors a Pride Ball in India the reality is very different on the ground, even in America.

“There’s no question that Sally Ride could have been fired if she’d come out while she worked for NASA,” said Fred Sainz of Human Rights Campaign. “It was important then to keep it a secret or you’d affect your security clearance.”

Is It Fair?

It is a reminder that mow that she is gone, her partner of 27 years will not get any of the benefits that would normally automatically accrue to the widow of a NASA astronaut. There are ways same-sex couples work with, and around the law, to provide for each other but they have to jump through hoops.

And it is a reminder that media still cannot quite say the L-word or the G-word. Most media, from the New York Times to television news, did not mention that the first American woman in space was also the first lesbian in space. The media’s silence about Ride’s sexuality was not just etiquette or reticence about outing a private person. Her own company Sally Ride Science, in its statement said clearly (note the order of precedence) – “In addition to Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years, Sally is survived by her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear; her niece, Caitlin, and nephew, Whitney; her staff of 40 at Sally Ride Science; and many friends and colleagues around the country.”

Level Of Acceptance

Confusingly, Tam O’Shaughnessy is also her business partner. Whatever one thinks of the debate around same-sex marriage one thing is clear. It needs to happen if only to do away with what Andrew Sullivan calls that “ghastly word” – partner.

One would like to think that society has come to a level of acceptance where there is no need to spell out the L-word. It’s enough to just acknowledge the surviving partner the way the New York Times and Los Angeles Times did – “her partner of 27 years.”

But we are not there. It’s as if the admission of lesbianism could somehow diminish Sally Ride’s achievements. We can perhaps reluctantly accept a gay hero but it’s hard to accept a hero who turns out to have been gay. This is not about what Sally Ride would have wanted. It’s about what we, as a society, want from our Sally Rides.

When Sally Ride went to space in 1983, headlines around the world chanted Ride, Sally Ride. We, as a society have a long long way to ride. Source: HuffPost

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