Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sally Ride — 1951-2012

Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, was a true pioneer and role model for everyone.

Dr. Ride was finishing studies at Stanford University — she had degrees in physics and astrophysics (and also English) — and looking for a job when she saw NASA’s advertisement. She looked at the qualifications and said, “I’m one of those people,” she told The New York Times in 1982.

She applied, and made the cut.

“The women’s movement had already paved the way, I think, for my coming,” she said.

By the time she began studying laser physics at Stanford, women had already broken through into the physics department, once a boys’ club. And when she applied to the space program, NASA had already made a commitment to admit women.

But there were still rough spots. Speaking to reporters before the first shuttle flight, Dr. Ride — chosen in part because she was known for keeping her cool under stress — politely endured a barrage of questions focused on her sex: 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?

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.

At a NASA news conference, Dr. Ride said: “It’s too bad this is such a big deal. It’s too bad our society isn’t further along.”

The fact that she was also gay adds a facet to her life story, although it shouldn’t matter any more than whether or not she had blue or brown eyes. That she kept it to herself was absolutely her own business, too, and the only reason I’m mentioning it at all is to give her the kudos for breaking through yet another barrier, even if no one but she knew she was doing it.