It's with considerable sadness that I read of the death of Dr Sally Ride at the entirely too young age of 61. Besides being the first American woman in space, Sally Ride earned a PhD. in astrophysics, with a concentration on X-Ray imaging and the physics of lasers. She was also involved in designing the robotic arm in the space shuttle. Her university work involved expanding humans' detection abilities beyond the limitations of our perceptual organs... leaving behind the bonds of human senses as she left the bonds of gravity in her career as an astronaut. After her NASA career, she became a champion of science education and an advocate of international cooperation and arms control.
Throughout her life, Dr Ride pushed against sexist preconceptions, as her New York Times obituary notes:
But there were still rough spots. Speaking to reporters before the first shuttle flight, Dr. Ride — chosen in part because she was known for keeping her cool under stress — politely endured a barrage of questions focused on her sex: Would spaceflight affect her reproductive organs? Did she plan to have children? Would she wear a bra or makeup in space? Did she cry on the job? How would she deal with menstruation in space?
The CBS News reporter Diane Sawyer asked her to demonstrate a newly installed privacy curtain around the shuttle’s toilet. On “The Tonight Show,” Johnny Carson joked that the shuttle flight would be delayed because Dr. Ride had to find a purse to match her shoes.
At a NASA news conference, Dr. Ride said: “It’s too bad this is such a big deal. It’s too bad our society isn’t further along.”
One sad fact is that the Soviets launched a woman into space twenty years before the U.S. did. In 1961, NASA trained thirteen women for eventual space flight, but the program was scrapped because of an "old boys' network" at the agency. Sally Ride's groundbreaking career was a personal triumph for her, but it serves as an indictment of the slowness of progress in our society.
Preoccupied with science education, equality of the sexes, and world peace? We lost one of the good ones, folks. Perhaps the best way to remember Dr Ride's life work is to push back against the reactionary forces which are trying to limit women's accomplishments, including those which would denigrate her relationship with her long-term partner. Dr Ride's entire life work was devoted to human progress, we should honor her by working towards that end ourselves.
As a coda, I just want to mention some of the women who have been working to further the cause of science education, women such as Eugenie Scott, Danica McKellar and my great and good friends Dorian Devins and Margaret Mittelbach. Keep Dr Sally Ride's legacy alive- support science, support education, support women's rights.