Sally Ride: 1951-2012

July 24, 2012 | 5:25 pm
Calen May-Tobin
Former contributor

Yesterday, the world suffered a great loss with the passing of Dr. Sally K. Ride. Dr. Ride was a brave explorer, passionate educator, brilliant scientist, and complex human being. Her impact and her absence will be long felt.

Sally Ride in Space

Dr. Sally Ride aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1983. ( Image Credit: NASA)

A Scientist in Space

Dr. Ride was best known as the first American woman in space, a distinction she earned when in June 1983 she was among the five crew members on the second mission of the Space Shuttle Challenger.  Although that flight earned her a place in history, her gender was not the reason she was aboard the shuttle.  She was there because she had a desire to fly, weightless in space, there because she answered a job advertisement in the newspaper, and above all, there because she possessed the foremost trait sought by NASA during the shuttle era: a brilliant analytical mind.

By the time she reached space, Sally Ride had received four degrees including a B.A. in English and three in physics (B.S., M.S., and Ph.D.). While at NASA, she switched from physics to engineering, helping to design the shuttle’s robotic arm, which she would later operate while in space. She flew on the Challenger twice and was scheduled for a third flight which was canceled after that shuttle exploded on a cold Florida morning, killing all seven aboard.  Dr. Ride served on the panel which investigated the Challenger disaster, and 17 years later would serve on the panel investigating the Columbia shuttle crash (she was the only person to serve on both panels). She retired from NASA in 1987.

Inspiring and Educating

Sally Ride and Tam O'Shaughnessy

Dr. Sally Ride, with her partner of 27 years, Dr. Tam O'Shaughnessy, in 2008, discussing the role of women in science. (Flickr/The American Library Association)

Dr. Ride spend the majority of her career educating and inspiring millions of Americans to love (or at least appreciate) science.  Soon after leaving NASA, Dr. Ride began teaching physics at the University of California, San Diego where she also directed the California Space Institute and instilled a love of science in her students.  In 2001, she established Sally Ride Science, an organization that designs engaging science and math educational materials for grades K-12.  Perhaps influenced by her degree in English, her organization emphasizes teaching science through telling stories, rather than presenting cold, hard facts.

Beyond her direct efforts in science education, Dr. Ride has been a role model and inspiration for many young women and men. For instance, the wife of one of my colleagues, a professor at University of Central Florida, had this to say about hearing Dr. Ride speak as a student:

“She stood in front of what was probably hundreds of girls in an auditorium and described what it was like to be an astronaut, including answering questions about how they used the toilet up there. With her curly black hair and astronaut stories, I was completely wowed by her and decided right then that I was going to be an astronaut too.  While I ultimately ended up as an ecologist and not an astronaut, having Sally Ride as a role model helped me to see that science was cool and fun.”

Another colleague of mine was so inspired by Dr. Ride as a child that she used her budding detective skills to track down Sally Ride’s parents in the phone book and ended up interviewing Sally’s mother for a third grade class report.

From a young age I dreamed of exploring space, but my idols were never the hot shot space jocks of early NASA. To me space always meant science and the archetype of Scientist Space Explorer was Sally Ride.

Ride, Sally, Ride


"More than anything else, our venturing into space has taught us to appreciate Earth — it’s revolutionized our view of our planet and our understanding of its complexity, and made us see the impact that we’re having on it." -Sally Ride, on the 40th anniversary of Earthrise. ( Image Credit: NASA)

In the end, what makes Sally Ride such an inspiring person is that she was always a complex human being, never a two-dimensional figurehead. She was known to be a fiercely private and reserved individual. For instance, it was not until her obituary that her nearly thirty-year relationship with Dr. Tam O’Shaughnessy was made public. And few knew about her cancer until her death. Yet during the Challenger disaster hearing, she publicly hugged a witness who presented particularly difficult testimony. She was the only panelist to do so.

Dr. Ride did not enter NASA for fame and glory, but out of a love of science and a desire to fly. This human desire, even in the face of such historical significance, is best summed up in two quotes from the time of her first historic flight. Of that flight Gloria Steinem said, “millions of little girls are going to sit by their television sets and see they can be astronauts, heroes, explorers and scientists.”

For her part, Dr. Ride simply said, “I’m sure it was the most fun that I’ll ever have in my life.”