By Susan Reimer, The Baltimore Sun
8:21 PM EDT, July 24, 2012
Sally Ride had the coolest name. Perfect for the first American woman in space.
On that day in 1983 when she shattered the ultimate glass ceiling aboard the shuttle Challenger, many in the crowd of a quarter-million people watching the launch — a group that included feminist icons Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem — were wearing T-shirts that read "Ride, Sally, Ride." Her journey was the ultimate cover for Wilson Pickett's rock 'n' roll lyrics.
Dr. Ride, who died Monday at 61 in La Jolla, Calif., after a very private battle with pancreatic cancer, was cool, too.
She was chosen for the shuttle crew by NASA administrator Chris Kraft because he thought she could handle the pressure. In those days, they were still asking women if their menstrual cycles would affect their job performance. They wanted to know whether the trip into space would damage her reproductive organs.
And they asked Dr. Ride if she would wear makeup or a bra in space.
"There is no sag in zero G," she responded. Cool. Way cool.
"Even though Sally was the first, she didn't want to be the only," said Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who was a member of the House of Representatives when she watched Dr. Ride head into space with four male astronauts. "She wanted there to be so many [women astronauts] that it would no longer be a novelty."
Now chair of the Senate subcommittee that funds the space program, Senator Mikulski took to the Senate floor yesterday to remember that day.
"The whole world had signs saying, 'Go, Sally, go!'" said Senator Mikulski, a self-described "science groupie" who would become close friends with the astronaut. "I will never forget it. It was an enormously patriotic moment."
Dr. Ride returned to space aboard the Challenger in 1984, and then, as a member of the panel that investigated its tragic explosion seconds after takeoff in 1986, she asked the tough questions and encouraged the whistle-blower whose warnings about the O-rings in cold weather had been dismissed by both the manufacturer and NASA.
She was chosen again in 2003 for the panel that investigated the disintegration upon reentry of the shuttle Columbia, and she spoke, courageously, of the malaise that had settled over NASA, causing scientists to forget the lessons of the Challenger.
But she never lost her pride or confidence in the American space program. "I flew the shuttle twice. It got me home twice. I like the shuttle," she once said.
When the Challenger disaster precluded a third trip into space, Dr. Ride retired from NASA and turned her attention to the next generation of astronauts — and the many generations that might follow. She mentored the women who became shuttle mission commanders, and she founded a company — Sally Ride Science — to encourage girls and young women to study math and the sciences.
"In the era of endorsements and promotions, she was very modest," said Senator Mikulski. A phone call from Dr. Ride was one of the first she received when she became the first woman elected to the Senate from Maryland. They talked about forming a club for first women. "She felt her work was sponsored by the American people and it was not for her personal profit."
But her legacy to girls and young women extends far beyond the lab or the classroom. She earned a master's in physics and a doctorate in astrophysics at a time when those were boys' clubs. And she was an academic chosen for the astronaut program when that was the territory of military test pilots.
What can there be, then, that a girl or a young woman could not aspire to? As former California first lady Maria Shriver tweeted, "Every time a woman dreams of conquering the next frontier, she will stand on Sally Ride's shoulders."
Dr. Ride watched the graceful turning of the Earth during her space flights, and it changed her idea of what NASA's mission might be.
Senator Mikulski tells the story of Dr. Ride meeting her and then-Sen. Al Gore and suggesting that NASA focus on a planet where there was thought to be intelligent life.
"Where is that?" the senators asked her anxiously. "Planet Earth," she said.
She came to Baltimore with Senator Mikulski in 2008 to the Maryland Science Center where Girl Scouts were in science camp and talked to them about Earth as a planet to be explored, too.
"More than anything else," she wrote in an email to Andrew Revkin, who writes the Dot Earth science blog for the New York Times, "our venturing into space has taught us to appreciate Earth. It's revolutionized our view of our planet and our understanding of its complexity, and made us see the impact we are having on it."
Senator Mikulski marks her own "journey into space" with the milestones many of us of a certain age witnessed: The Earth orbit by John Glenn, the moon walk of Neil Armstrong and the smiling face of Sally Ride, circled with her thick, dark curls, as she floated weightlessly, playfully, inside the shuttle.
When the Challenger landed, she said, "I'm sure it was the most fun that I'll ever have in my life."
Seeing her face again after all these years, you can understand why, for Sally Ride, it was never about being the first. It was about the adventure.
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