When I was a little girl, I wanted to be an astronaut. Not long after moving to Florida, I became fascinated with space exploration and decided that was my future career, no questions asked. To seven-year-old me, it didn’t matter that I got motion sickness or that space travel was dangerous (the Challenger had just exploded two years prior, and I endured many questions of “doesn’t that scare you?” from classmates). All I knew was that I wanted to fly to the stars.
Nobody said to me, however, that I couldn’t be an astronaut. And when I went to Space Camp (four times, mind you), I wasn’t the only girl on my team: there were always a handful of others. Dr. Sally Kristen Ride is part of the reason for that.
Ride became an astronaut in 1978, the first class to include women. (The others were Anna Fisher, Shannon Lucid, Judy Resnik, Rhea Seddon, and Kathryn Sullivan.) She earned four degrees from Stanford University, including a doctorate in physics in 1978. Needless to say, she was quite qualified for her position as a mission specialist, and was the lucky woman chosen to be the first American woman in space. Her first flight was aboard STS-7, Challenger, in 1983. She also flew on another shuttle mission, STS-41G, in 1984.
I could go on and list all of Ride’s numerous awards and accomplishments, but that’s not what’s really important. What’s important is the inspiration Sally Ride gave to numerous girls and young women over the years. I never once thought “I can’t be an astronaut,” because women like her were brave enough to trailblaze new fields when they were being told they couldn’t. She continued to be an inspiration even after leaving the astronaut corps, founding Sally Ride Science, where she helped to encourage girls to pursue careers in science and mathematics. I know how important that is: I did my master’s thesis on female workers at Kennedy Space Center, and as part of my research I interviewed many female engineers who were told they couldn’t study science because that was a “man’s” subject.
I didn’t become an astronaut, obviously – I eventually realized that the motion sickness, and my lack of ability in science and math would be a hindrance to that career – but my interest in space exploration never waned. During graduate school I worked in the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex education department, and it was the funnest job I’ve ever had. I loved teaching little kids about space and hoping that they, like me, would be inspired by their time at KSC. And even though I never flew into space myself, I thank that ambition for my lifelong interest in science fiction.
To say I was saddened to hear the news of Sally Ride’s passing is an understatement. Not only was she an accomplished individual who inspired a generation of young girls – and boys – but 61 is far too young to die. I never got the chance to meet her or listen to her speak in person, but I will always be grateful for her contributions to science. Even more so, I thank her for the fact that she didn’t listen whenever someone said “girls can’t do that.”
Thank you, Dr. Sally Ride, and rest in peace.