A short tribute to Sally Ride. She and Amelia are flying high together now, I believe.
On a day on which much of the news was divided between the horror of a mass murder and the horror of a pederast, there was such a clean sadness in learning of the death of Sally Ride, physicist, astronaut, hero, role model, beacon of integrity, woman I wish we'd known.
How many women entered those all important STEM professions because they loved Sally Ride when they were little girls? She was the first American woman in space, and at the time of her first flight, the youngest person. I like thinking of Sally and all those flyboys, the macho fighter pilots who dominated the astronaut corps at NASA: Flipping that mop of hair, flashing that science background and letting them eat her dust.
She was seven years older than me, and I sure wish I had known her when we were accidental and unwitting neighbors for a while: She attended Swarthmore College, before transferring to that science Mecca, Stanford. I was living two towns over in Morton, Pa., attending Our Lady of Perpetual Help grade school, locked in competition for the nuns' approval with Robert Moore. Robert had a microscope and lots of books on science; he had been to Death Valley. Sister Ann Richard called him, "Robert, my little scientist." I was encouraged to read and write and try to be neater on my art projects. By the time I reached Cardinal O'Hara High School, I hated science, and by the time I reached Algebra 2, I hated math. Sally Ride had bachelor's degrees in physics and English. She was also a nationally ranked tennis player, I learned Monday, proving that sometimes you really can have it all.
Sally's expeditions into outer space — for a total of more than two weeks — both were on the Space Shuttle Challenger. She was training for another mission when the Challenger exploded. Ride was integral in the commission looking into the disaster, a commission that cast a cold eye on the NASA culture that valued expedience over prudence. That commission was the first to point out that the vaunted redundancies in the space program were useless if the warnings of first-line advisers were ignored. I can only imagine the grief — and anger — she must have felt on learning of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia after similar low-level warnings were ignored. Although no longer with NASA, she managed her anger and served on that investigating committee as well.
Roger Boisjoly, the whistle blower who warned for six months that terribly cold weather could cause seals on the space shuttle to shatter — and who warned of that again, the day before the disaster — was blacklisted by Morton Thiokol (the O-ring manufacturer) and shunned by former friends and coworkers, despite a history of excellent work. According to his obituary in the New York Times earlier this year, after the disaster he suffered headaches, double-vision and depression. He and his family stopped going to church to avoid people. A single gesture kept him going: Sally Ride hugged him in public. According to the Times: “She was the only one,” he said in a whisper to a Newsday reporter in 1988. “The only one.”
Ride was married to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley for five years. But her childhood friend, business associate, co-author and life partner was Dr. Tam O'Shaughnessy. The two co-authored several books for children about science and about loving science. At least two elementary schools are named after Ride. We were so proud to teach our daughters about her — and our sons.
On SallyRideScience.com, O'Shaughnessy and Ride discuss the dangers of global warming. Here's what Sally said: "If we have learned anything over the last 30 years, it’s that Earth is a complicated place. It might be possible to do something—try some experiment to help solve things—that could actually throw the whole system off, and we might have trouble recovering from it. We have to start working on and developing technologies, and then deploying these technologies. And we need to focus on the science to keep learning more and more. If we start experimenting with the planet, we could get ourselves in trouble. If we are going to be smart, we had better be really smart."
That's the lesson, isn't it? If we are going to be smart, we had better be really smart.
Thanks, Sally, for being really, really smart for us so many times. I know you're enjoying the view from where you are right now. Ride, Sally, ride.