23 July 2012

Sally Ride, R.I.P.

I have just found out that Sally Ride has died of pancreatic cancer, at the age of 61.

As you probably know, she became the first American woman in space" when she blasted off  in 1983.  She took another trip into outer space the following year.  Then she was scheduled for another voyage that was cancelled after the space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight on 28 January 1986.

Dr. Ride, who earned undergraduate degrees in Physics and English, had just recently finished her PhD in Physics at Stanford University when she took her first trip.  While still a doctoral student, she answered an ad NASA had placed in her school's student newspaper.  As it happened, the space program finally decided to accept women the year before she took her historic journey.

Later, as a professor at the University of California-San Diego, she started Sally Ride Science, which, as she says, allowed her to pursue her "longtime passion for motivating girls and young women to pursue careers in science, math and technology.

One thing I find interesting now is that at the time of her space trips, no mention was made of her sexual orientation.  In fact, most people probably don't know about it unless they've seen the story I've linked, or others that say she is survived by Tam O'Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years.  

Of course, it makes sense that her sexuality, had it been know, wouldn't have been mentioned at the time.  She may well have done everything she could to hide it when she applied, and was training, for the program.  Also, she went into space at a time when then-President Ronald Reagan wouldn't even say the word "AIDS" in public.  In fact, according to a story that circulated around that time, The Gipper kicked his son out of the house when he dropped out of Yale to become a ballet dancer.  (He was good enough to join the Joffrey.)  

We all know about boys who become dancers--and girls who become astrophysicists.  They're just like you and me.  Well, maybe not me:  I don't have the requisite talents for becoming either of those. But at least Sally Ride found a way to nurture her talents, in a time when there was little support for girls or young women who wanted to be astronauts--or boys or young men who wanted to be ballet dancers.

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