Ride, Sally Ride!

I remember Sally Ride. Her permed hair and her friendly smile from her NASA portrait are fixed in my memory. As a woman, a leader in her field, a scientist, an adventurer, she is an amazing person and an inspiration to generations of women and girls.

I was in kindergarten when the Challenger exploded, and I remember the day that it happened. My class was on a field trip to the SPCA. It was emotional and confusing. Space is supposed to be a place for exploration and my generation had not experienced, until that day, the sadness and danger associated with the extremely complex and risky work of astronauts. Like maybe every kid everywhere, I dreamed about being an astronaut-something (in my case the something was ballerina, I wanted to dance weightless in space). Sally Ride made me believe that at least one half of that dream was possible.

To me, her legacy will not just be that every girl wanted to go to Space Camp (my brother did, I was insanely jealous), become an astronaut, or even that every girl who wanted to could go into a STEM career. It is all those things, but it’s also much bigger. Her legacy is that we, as women and girls, look up and see a woman who knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that she belongs on that Shuttle. She was a PhD is physics, a skeptic, and a scientist. She was also intensely ambitious, and that ambition extends beyond her own life and career (she almost became a professional tennis player, your guys). She was ambition for us all.  When Johnny Carson and other astronauts were content to make jokes about her shoes and her purse (or worse), and regular people wondered if space travel would make her sterile, she suited up and flew where no woman had been before. Then she came home, worked for NASA, taught extensively, and eventually started an organization that motivated and empowered young women (and boys too!) to pursue science and technology careers. She was always present, often visible, and critical in the best possible way.

Honestly, I didn’t realize how much her story affected me until last night, when I heard that she has passed away. Her death is emotional, in part because she was extremely young. But mostly because she was amazing, and it is sad to live with one less amazing person in this world.

As a personal coda: when I was in high school, I took as much science as possible, something like 5.5 years of science classes in 4 years. I knew I was a terrible science student, and I was also struggling in math. I knew I couldn’t cut it at the college level.  I didn’t care for the details of lab work, and I definitely didn’t understand how to take the limit of anything as it approached anything else. This was frustrating for me, since I had excelled in math up through geometry, and yet I could not break through. I knew that it was ‘now or never’ for my science education. I was not gifted in those subjects, but I was always, always allowed to try. Even when I was almost failing physics and calculus, my teachers let me try, helped me while I struggled, and had kind, supportive words for me. I remember telling my favorite math teacher about this amazing Tom Stoppard play I had seen, Arcadia. He was excited to see it too, and then he taught me about iterative functions.

Some us of will try and fail, like me. Some of us are Sally Ride. But all of us have to try.

Whoa, this post is so corny.

Link: Sally Ride, Trailblazing Astronaut, Dies at 61 (NY Times)

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