Dr. Sally Ride broke a huge barrier in 1983, when she became the first American woman in space. After a second trip into space a year later, she embarked on a long and distinguished career in physics and education, directing the California Space Institute, writing six science books for children, and later setting up her own company “to make science and engineering cool again.” Her special joy was reaching out to young girls with dreams of doing what girls weren’t supposed to do.
And now she is pushing against one more barrier, even after her death. Newspapers and blogs were full of the news of her passing, and most of them incorporated the official obituary released by her company, Sally Ride Science. Very few of them took any notice of the last sentence of the obituary, which quietly acknowledged that Dr. Ride was gay.
In addition to Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years, Sally is survived by her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear; her niece, Caitlin, and nephew, Whitney; her staff of 40 at Sally Ride Science; and many friends and colleagues around the country.
Sally Ride met Tam O’Shaughnessy when they were both 12 years old. After a short-lived heterosexual marriage to a fellow astronaut, Sally entered a relationship with Tam and remained there for the rest of her life — nearly three decades. She is one of America’s greatest heroes, a role model to zillions of little girls, and when she died, all that could be said of the love of her life is that she was a “partner.”
The New York Times published an excellent obituary, going into more detail than most. This passage in particular stood out for me:
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.”
It took the United States twenty years to catch up with the USSR and finally acknowledge that a woman could, in fact, be an astronaut. In the matter of love and marriage, the nation is once again lagging, this time behind developed nations all over the world. Dr. Ride’s words in 1983 still apply right now — it’s too bad our society isn’t further along.
But the last thing she did was to give her country one more push against that barrier. I wonder if our history books will acknowledge it.