It was a shock to the nation, and the world, when former
astronaut Sally Ride passed away in July of 2012. 61 is far too young for anyone to die. What is remarkable about Sally Ride is how much she packed into that life. Like many people around the world, I first saw Sally Ride on the TV news when I was a kid. It was big news. The Soviet Union had launched a woman into space two decades earlier, but when Sally flew on the space shuttle in 1983 the achievement felt brand new. NASA’s astronauts before that flight had all been white men, mostly with test pilot backgrounds. It was easy to mistake one for another. To see a woman on television floating inside the space shuttle gave the space program an entirely new face. This new space vehicle was for everyone, I understood.
Yet not anyone could gain a coveted seat. Shuttle astronauts had to be sharp. Sally’s selection group was a mixture of the country’s top pilots plus some very bright, ambitious scientists and engineers. Sally herself had a brand new doctorate in physics when she joined NASA in 1978. Fresh out of college, she was the youngest American to fly in space when she was launched on the first of her two missions aboard space shuttle Challenger.
She would have flown at least one more mission, but the shuttle she flew on twice was lost in a tragic accident at the beginning of 1986. Ride was appointed to the board that investigated the tragedy, ensuring that the engineering issues that doomed the mission were fixed. Then, as often happens with high achievers, she was promoted into new positions within NASA that took her away from her active flying astronaut role.
Here is where the history books could have lost interest in Sally Ride. After all, many other people with notable achievements never match them again in life. Ride could have gone on to prestigious and lucrative positions in government or private industry. Her name and her prior achievements could have comfortably carried her for decades. Yet that is not what Sally chose to do with the rest of her career.
When she hired me to work for her, she had set up a company named Sally Ride Science, designed specifically to engage middle schoolers – particularly girls – in the excitement of science and engineering. Sally and her team had spent a number of years researching why women were not entering careers in STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math – as readily as men. Her research suggested that peer pressure in middle school was a large factor. Science was seen as something only old white men did, alone, in a basement. It didn’t sound very appealing to middle school girls. How could science be made to appeal to this age?
One answer was to create science festivals around the country. My job with Sally and her company was to help stage the science equivalent of a traveling rock show – dynamic speakers, astronaut appearances, a street festival, music, food, and dozens of inspiring women scientists and engineers giving workshops. The events attracted tens of thousands of girls. We could see their opinion of science and engineering change the moment they arrived, saw the festive atmosphere, and saw thousands of girls like themselves engaging in fun, hands-on activities. Sally frequently gave talks to the girls herself and signed hundreds of autographs, but other times another woman astronaut would be there to share her experiences instead. Every weekend, we saw young people leave with a whole new impression of what science and engineering really was. Whatever they went on to do in life, they never thought of science and engineering in the same way again.
I was impressed by Sally. An intensely private person, she nevertheless put herself out in front of the public week after week, inspiring students across the nation, because she truly believed in what she was doing. It would have been so easy for her to fade into the background as another name in the history books. Instead, she showed that educating people is a lifelong passion.
She was a first, and that was important. I truly believe, however, that the second act of her life was even more important. She motivated, educated and challenged a whole new generation who will go on to be firsts in other fields. Half a century from now, there will be women scientists and engineers making groundbreaking discoveries as a direct result of meeting Sally. Even for such a short life, what more of a legacy could any of us hope to leave?
is originally from Manchester, England, although he now lives and works in Southern California. He has been working for over a decade in the field of science education, particularly in making science and technology accessible and understandable to family audiences in informal learning settings such as museums. His work has included regular collaborations with NASA, retired astronauts, notable astronomers and astronomical observatories around the world, and a banner he designed was flown on the space shuttle Columbia’s last successful mission. He is the former Director of Events with Sally Ride Science, working for America’s first woman in space, and the current Director of Education at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.
He has been a regular contributor of articles to aerospace magazines since 1996, primarily in the area of manned spaceflight history, and is the co-author of both Into That Silent Sea and In The Shadow of the Moon.