On June 18, 1983, 32 years ago Thursday, Sally Ride climbed into the cockpit of the space shuttle Challenger to become the first American woman in space. Ride spent six days in orbit, deploying satellites and operating a robotic arm, and returned to earth a feminist hero.
“I don’t think I appreciated how much of a trailblazer I was for women and how much women would look up to me as a role model,” she said in an interview with the Academy of Achievement in 2006, adding, “I wasn’t face-to-face with women until I came back from my flight, and then it hit home pretty hard how important I was to an awful lot of women in the country.”
Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to enter space, in 1961. Since Ride, another 56 women (including 48 Americans) have flown in space. Ride was undeniably a glass ceiling cracker for the generations of women who followed her. But Ride’s later ventures, including her passion for making science accessible to young women, were equally trailblazing.
Ride was only 27, studying for a Ph.D. in astrophysics at Stanford, when she spotted a newspaper ad for NASA astronauts. She knew immediately that becoming an astronaut was something she had to do. She did, however, ignore many of the questions reporters hounded her with: Are you afraid of being in orbit with all those men? Do you weep when things go wrong on the job? Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?
“It may be too bad that our society isn’t further along and that this is such a big deal,” Ride remarked at a 1983 press conference before her flight, after evading answering many of the journalists’ questions about her gender.
Ride ended up flying two space flights before retiring from NASA in 1987 to work first at Stanford and then the University of California, San Diego. Over the years, Ride ended up speaking to many groups of young people about her life. She discovered that, when she spoke to elementary school science classes, boys and girls were equally interested. Yet when she spoke to high school and college science classes, there were significantly fewer girls.
“I decided that it was worth my time to try to have some impact on that,” she told the Academy of Achievement, explaining, “We should be cultivating the girls as much as the boys, and [we need] to be able to give girls in middle school, high school and college the same opportunities that we give to boys.”
In 2001, Ride founded Sally Ride Science in order to motivate young people, “especially girls and minorities” according to its company mission statement, to study STEM. The company helps educators run workshops, camps and “Science Festivals” to expose girls to the wonders of different scientific fields and to encourage educators to help girls stay in STEM. Ride also wrote seven books about science for children, including two about climate change.
Ride died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer, nearly three decades after her first flight, but she made headlines and history again when The New York Times published her obituary. In the second-to-last paragraph, squeezed between members of Ride’s surviving family, were the seemingly inconspicuous words, “Dr. Ride is survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy.”
To date, Sally Ride remains the only known LGBTQ astronaut. After her death, many wondered why she’d never come out.
Aside from being notoriously private, “Sally didn’t want to be defined by the lesbian/gay label just as she didn’t want to be defined by a gender label,” O’Shaughnessy told Lynn Sherr, Ride’s biographer. She later changed her mind, O’Shaughnessy said, but died before they could officially debut as a couple.
Ride was a feminist icon not just because she was an astronaut, but because she was also an advocate—of never letting others tell you what to do or who to be. O’Shaughnessy, who was also a co-founder of Sally Ride Science, wrote Ride’s obituary for the company website. “Her integrity was absolute,” the obituary read. “Her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless.”
Photo courtesy of Flickr user NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.