“Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” asked an interviewer before her first space flight, “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
No one asked those questions of male astronauts, but Dr. Sally Ride was different. She was the first American woman in space and to this day, the youngest American to go to space. Yet her whole life, as she got her PhD in astrophysics, as she taught at Stanford, as she trained and flew in the Challenger, people waited for her to fail.
Sally Ride was born in 1951, a time when women’s career options were limited, and the Cold War was in full swing. She grew up in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles1, where she first played tennis at 9 years old. Her skill in tennis was what made her entire career possible, earning her a partial scholarship for the private Westlake School for Girls2. Not only that, but tennis was how she first met Dr. Tamara O’Shaughnessy, who later became Ride’s lover for 27 years3. Ride was ranked nationally for tennis while she attended Swarthmore College, but she gave up a career as a professional tennis player to follow what she loved: science.
Ride went to Stanford University next, earning a bachelor’s degree in English and physics, then a master’s degree, and was a doctoral candidate when NASA opened up their selection to women for the first time. She was selected among five other women candidates in 1978. That year, not only did she begin her astronaut training and evaluation, but she also received her PhD. in astrophysics. Five years of NASA training and ground crew positions later, she boarded the shuttle orbiter Challenger and became the first American woman in space4. As the expert with the shuttle’s robotic arm, she helped launch two communications and one science satellite. Only five months later, she was back in space on the Challenger again, launching an Earth-observation satellite5.
After she came back to the ground, she fell in love with Tamara O’Shaughnessy, a doctor in school psychology. After getting together, they stayed with each other until the very end. Yet while her personal life was coming together, her career was dramatically altered by the 1986 Challenger disaster, a turning point in the world’s view of NASA and Ride’s life. Her third flight was put on hold and she served on Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. Not that much later, she retired from NASA to teach at Stanford6. After two years at Stanford, she moved to San Diego to promote NASA. Dr. O’Shaughnessy joined her in 2002, becoming a professor emerita at San Diego State University. Ride and O’Shaughnessy were strong advocates of science, writing children’s books together and founding Sally Ride Science to encourage girls in STEM.
Ride never let anyone see her fail, never let anyone’s sexism get in the way. Yet as brave and as powerful a force she was in changing the way that women in science were thought of, she has also become an icon in the world of queer scientists. As a very private person, most people did not realize Ride was lesbian until her obituary in 2012 revealed that she had been with Dr. O’Shaughnessy for 27 years7. She died three years before gay marriage was federally legalized, but she was the first queer astronaut. She proved that nothing, no stereotype, no prejudice, no institution can hold back anyone from their dreams.
Today, we try to honor her story by passing it on and by keeping her name alive with Sally Ride Club, the LGBTQ+ club for Galaxy Explorers at Chabot.