Sally’s Ride in the Race for Space

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The International Space Station ©NASA

Hollywood would have us believe that what women in a rocky relationship want – really want – is one thing that starts with the letter s.

Space.

So in the height of America’s steamy affair with the Soviet Union, paradoxically dubbed the Cold War, a woman decided that she has had enough of all the endless bickering: she needed space so she went out and got it, actually, a vast plenty of space. That is, by entering a rocket and blasting off from Earth. The woman who took the ride was named Sally.

Sally Ride (1951-2012) was 32 years old when she first donned the spacesuit for her historic flight. The first American woman astronaut to do so. But before she could reach the stars, she had to traverse hostile rocky roads

Sally Ride

©NASA

Ride was an active and athletic Californian girl who loved to move. When she was young she used to look up to the stars with her telescope and learn the basics of elements with her chemistry set. But it was dominating tennis sets that got her a scholarship. Her performance in a national junior tennis tourney was enough to gain her a scholarship to Westlake School for Girls. Competitiveness was her early hallmark. She was even on her way up in the national ranks. But she would soon change courts, as she felt that there was a different thrill that she longed for. Something was missing: science. Ride describes her high school years as having not much interaction with science, saying that she was in “a classic school for girls” with “no math passed 11th grade, and no physics, and no chemistry.”

 

Moving to the east to explore the murky horizons of undergraduate life, Ride landed on the grounds of Swarthmore College. Eastern winters proved exhausting, and after three semesters, she volleyed back to Californian sun, bouncing first at UCLA to attend physics courses then finally landing at Stanford University to score a double degree in Physics and English in 1973. Of course, the ride was just beginning. She finished her masters and PhD in physics in 1975 and 1978, respectively, courtesy of Stanford University.

It was within this period when Ride made the drastic decision to exchange the tennis racket for a space rocket.

While reading the Stanford Daily as a PhD student in 1977, Ride stumbled upon an ad – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) came calling to space enthusiasts: do you want to be an astronaut? In Ride’s mind: why not? So Ride sent her résumé. Out of more than 8,000 applicants, she was one of those selected for interview. Result: Passed. Her name was then included in the 1978 final list along with five other women.

Training began soon after, which included parachute landing, carrying out duties in zero gravity, and space navigation. She completed the necessary niceties and passed the evaluation period in 1979, qualifying as a Mission Specialist for future space assignments. She would soon be given her first duties as Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM) for NASA’s two space shuttle missions: STS-2 (1981) and STS-3 (1982).

For their next mission, NASA earmarked June 18, 1983 as STS-7’s date of flight. The first space shuttle to be manned with five personnel. Everything was ready. Nothing looked amiss. Mission Control: All systems go.

Take off!

STS-7 was a success. The whole mission lasted 147 hours. Among its objectives were to deploy various satellites, conduct studies on alloy formation in microgravity, and other experiments. But what it is remembered for the most, is that among its five personnel was a woman – Sally Ride.

For the first time ever, America sent a woman to space – and on her first mission, she silenced her doubters and showcased her mettle: she was the first to successfully command a robot arm to retrieve and release satellites.

Sally Ride with STS-7 crew

Members of the STS-7 crew (from l to r): Sally Ride, John Fabian, Bob Crippen, Norm Thagard, & Frederick Hauck. ©NASA

In the context of the Cold War, her voyage was a tad bit overdue since her comrades from the Soviet Union, Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya had already cruised the cosmos in 1963 and 1983, respectively. Nonetheless, it was one huge step for Ride and one giant leap for womankind. A giant leap that was almost hampered from setting foot upon the launchpad. The reason? Ride was a woman.

Pressure from the press was paramount. We’ve given women all the space they need, and now they want more? Ludicrous! – so thought America. Waves of ridiculous comments came crashing down from all directions – most came from the media. One reporter asked if she cried when there were malfunctions in the simulator – a question Ride considers the dumbest. If that question was tragic, the following were farce. Another journalist asked if space would affect her reproductive organs. Others wanted to know how she feels about sharing the bathroom with the other crew. Or what type of make-up she will use in space. Despite the heavy duty protection offered by the spacesuit, the press was resolved to remove and strip all that she had accomplished and adorned to reduce her to what they deemed was essentially her, a woman. The ride was tough, but Ride was tougher.

She would soon silent the press again when she put on her spacesuit for the second time for her next space adventure. Mission STS 41-G launched on October 5, 1984. This time, in a crew of seven, Ride was not the lone woman. With her was Kathryn Sullivan, who made her own giant leap by stepping out of the capsule and becoming the first American woman to walk on space.

A third mission for Ride was scheduled in the middle of 1986, but it was promptly cancelled after the STS-51-L accident in January of that year. After just 72 seconds from take off, the shuttle exploded mid-flight. All seven crew members perished. The nation looked on as shuttle debris fell down from the sky. Questions were raised. Answers had to be found. A presidential committee named the Rogers Commission was then formed to resolve the issue. Sally Ride was one of those tasked to seek answers. Joining Ride was a curious cast of characters belonging to various agencies and academies, from retired astronaut Neil Armstrong to Nobel Prize winner for physics Richard Feynman. In this truth-seeking committee, Ride was again, the only woman.

NASA found itself in a crisis. All space activities came to a halt. They faced fierce bureaucratic and theoretical criticisms from Feynman, which at first, they refused to accept. Now, more than ever, they needed fresh fuel to launch them back up again to the stars, or else, the Soviets will inevitably usurp them from the kingdom of space. In its attempt to reinvigorate itself with new vitality, NASA tasked Ride to come up with their new strategic vision for its space program. The fruit of this endeavor resulted in a report released in 1987 titled NASA Leadership and America’s Future in Space: A Report to the Administrator. Its shorter and more popular title is named after Ride – The Ride Report. 

Thereafter, Ride resigned from NASA to go back to academia. She spent two years at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Arms Control. She then moved to the space of the University of California, San Diego’s classrooms, where she taught physics in 1989.

The coming of the new millennium saw Ride taking a different route in science engagement. In 2001, Sally Ride Science was inaugurated – it was meant to become a platform for scientific training and resource for both teachers and students. The overall goal of the program was to make STEM cool for the younger generation, a goal which was close to Ride’s heart. Outside organizational outreach, Ride wrote science books aimed for the lay, five of them written especially for children. Their theme: space. Their message: space is yours for the taking.

Just as the ride was going smoothly, something up ahead indicated the end of the road. Ride was diagnosed with cancer. After a 17-month long battle with the illness at the age of 61, she closed her eyes in peace on July 23, 2012 as she joined the stars that were awaiting her arrival.

Throughout the years of active science outreach and public engagement, and even through the painful days of her personal and private skirmish against cancer, her partner of 27 years Tam O’Shaughnessy was by her side. A childhood friend and tennis partner who shared space with Ride when the world of men would not even allow her an inch, even if Hollywood harangues the public in condescension. She would continue Ride’s legacy by serving as the executive director of Sally Ride Science.

Majestic is usually a word coined to describe the view of space from earth, but the view of space from space merits a whole new different vocabulary. Perhaps, requiring a new set of eyes to capture the whole spectrum of wonder it emanates. Men and women have devoted and sacrificed their lives to give us a glimpse of the alien landscape to enrich our humanity. Up there is a view of space that not even Hollywood can really capture. It is this view that astronauts like Ride brought back to earth for all to see. Despite her death, her books enjoy steady circulation and Sally Ride Science continues on full speed ahead with a full tank of new energy and leadership.

Needless to say, the Ride goes on.

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Sally’s space squad. ©NASA

 

References:

Sherr, Lynn. Sally Ride: America’s first woman in space. Simon & Schuster. New York: United States. 2014

Sally Ride NASA biographical data. 2012. Retrieved from https://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/ride-sk.html

 

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