Her name did not get splashed across supermarket tabloids but she made real headlines.
She was a real American Idol before that concept became trivial and silly.
She was famous for her achievements, not for being simply a celebrity.
She could have run with the jet set but preferred to fly her own jet.
She proved that girls could fly like the boys, could solve complicated math problems with the best of them, could be cool as an engineer and scientist. And she had a mean backhand.
Dr. Sally Ride, the first woman to soar into space, was a brilliant Stanford Physicist, a member of two Challenger shuttle crews, a champion collegiate tennis player and author of numerous children’s books to inspire kids to study math and science. Perhaps most important, she was a heroic role model for generations of girls and women whose hopes for real equality brightened considerably as they watched her launch into orbit after decades of male-only space flights.
I remember feeling even the briefest twinge of jealousy when I first watched Sally Ride’s preparations for the Challenger launch in 1983. She was just a year older than me, and she was the fulfillment of the fantasies that many girls had in the 1960’s — “fantasies” because our dreams of flying into outer space were chilled by the sad realities of diminished expectations for girls.
I guess I’m really dating myself when I say that I can remember the tense excitement of those days in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when the space race literally took off — first the Soviets with Sputnik, then the United States with the Explorer satellite and then Telstar, the first telecommunications satellite. My brothers and I would sit in the backyard with Dad trying to see the moving points of light across the sky, the first satellites. Then along came the first seven NASA astronauts, with John Glenn rocketing into orbit, and many more space adventures to follow. For a period of time when I was in grade school, I devoured books in the local library about space and flying, and like many kids I dreamed about flying and becoming an astronaut. My favorite book in 8th Grade was We Seven by the Mercury Astronauts; The Right Stuff came later.
But the real “right stuff” for girls back then ran more to arts and letters than math and science. Too bad, I know that now, though arts and letters has certainly served me well. But the idea of women flying into space in the 1960’s was as much of a fantasy as the idea of women playing professional basketball back then, and the culture in which I grew up certainly did not encourage such wild ideas. My high school exalted excellence in Latin sight translation, with the most praise heaped on those of us who could deftly parse Caesar’s Gallic Wars and Cicero’s orations and Virgil’s Aeneid; never mind that our acquaintance with trigonometry and calculus was merely passing, we could sing of arms and men!
Sally Ride was surely smart enough to know the meaning of arma virumque cano (she earned degrees in English as well as Physics at Stanford, a real Renaissance Woman!) but she also had the added advantage of a culture that encouraged her in math and science, combined with her own highly motivated personality. When she saw an ad for astronauts in the Stanford student newspaper, she didn’t hesitate — she went after her dream with energy and excellence.
But beyond leading the way for women in space — and blazing a trail that dozens of other women astronauts followed — what I came to admire about Sally Ride was her modest, down-to-earth style after she came back to earth. She established her own center dedicated to encouraging kids in math and science, especially girls. She traveled the lecture circuit relentlessly, and received many honors. But in the three decades since her last space flight, she never exploited her historic role in an unseemly way; she never sought to cash-in on her fame. She was an exemplary citizens, serving on NASA panels investigating the Challenger and Columbia disasters; she was an active advocate for continuing space exploration.
She never lost her ability to inspire others to dream big, to reach higher, to contemplate the stars.
Sally Ride died this week of pancreatic cancer, the only frontier it seemed she could not conquer. At 61, she was much too young to go. But she leaves an amazing legacy, and thanks to her, young girls today who dream of flying might actually have the chance to ride rockets into outer space.
For the rest of us who are most likely permanently grounded here, the memory of her inherent optimism and spirit of exploration will remain inspirational.
And her commitment to advancing greater opportunities for girls and women to excel in math and science will ensure many more opportunities for rising generations.
See my Huffington Post comments on the Aurora Shootings “From the Great Outdoors to Outdoor World”
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