I do not remember being one of the countless girls who flipped on the television on June 18, 1983 to watch Dr. Sally Ride become the first US woman and youngest US astronaut into space. I did not catch the astronaut bug until the Challenger tragedy, but I quickly made up for lost time. Dr. Ride was my first lesson in acknowledging those who came before.
I have heard it said that if Sally Ride had waited for a role model, there would have never been a Sally Ride. This saying (I cannot find this being attributed to anyone specific) is usually said in the context of negating the idea that girls need role models. That idea is just ridiculous. Dr. Ride was an amazing and unique person. The fact is that she was stronger than most because we needed her to be our role model.
Her NYTimes obituary outlines the immense patience Dr. Ride possessed during the media hype preceding her historic flight.
“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?”
Would her purse match her shoes?
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.
Very few people could withstand that type of ridicule and nonsense with such grace.
Dr. Ride did not believe in this saying as she embraced her status as a role model. She launched “Sally Ride Science” in 2001, wrote children’s books about space and held space carnivals around the country. She knew that many girls need someone to show them that girls can do math, science, engineering, and reach beyond the stars. Dr. Ride did not want to be alone in her achievements. She wanted others to follow.
Influenced girls for 30 years
She was so strong and influential to girls for almost 30 years. Yet she did not always believe engineering was in her future. Dr. Ride flirted with the idea of becoming a professional tennis player. In fact, Billie Jean King urged her to so. For once, I am glad someone did not listen to her. This is important for girls to know. You do not always know your path. Keep doors open, listen to your heart and, if possible, follow your passion.
When cancer took Dr. Ride from us, she was not done being a role model. In her obituary, she included her partner of 27 years. Yes, the first woman from the USA in space was a lesbian. One of our national heroes was gay. Even in death she continues to teach us.
Thank you, Dr. Ride. For everything.
Veronica Arreola is a professional feminist, mom & writer. She is also the director of the University of Illinois, Chicago Women in Science & Engineering Program.
Photo from NASA