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Posted at 08:49 PM ET, 07/23/2012

Sally Ride’s legacy is greater than her space trips

Sally Ride. Sally, ride!

It was a name that was also a sentence. And it was what women all over the country were saying to themselves back in 1983, when she broke the highest of all barriers, the stratospheric one.

Now comes word that she has died, at the age of 61, of pancreatic cancer.

The message of her life, at least in her view, was not that what she had done was extraordinary. It was that it shouldn’t be.

“It’s no big thing,” she said at the time. “It’s too bad that society isn’t further along and this is still such a big deal. It’s time people in this country realized that women can do any job they want to.”

She was so cool that she made it seem all the more remarkable that it hadn’t happened before. In fact, it had: The Soviets had sent their first female cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova, into space two decades before.

Still, Ride had to endure questions about whether she was afraid she would cry. And newspaper accounts made note of the fact that, for the first time, the shuttle would have a door on the bathroom.

I met her once — interestingly enough, at a moment when gender barriers were very much on everyone’s mind. It was in 2008, on the night of the vice presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. I was speaking on a panel about politics at Fortune Magazine’s annual conference for women leaders, which is immodestly called the Most Powerful Women Summit, and the organizers had arranged a viewing party in a hotel ballroom.

When I realized who was sitting near the back of the room, I made a beeline for her. She was most gracious, and apparently accustomed to women like me coming up to gush about how we too had once dreamed of being an astronaut. Sally, ride!

That, perhaps, made her post-NASA mission all the more appropriate. Ride had founded a company, which she called Sally Ride Science, to encourage girls to pursue careers in science and technology.

Ride would often note some startling statistics: When fourth graders are asked whether they like science, boys and girls answer they do in roughly equal percentages, 68 percent and 66 percent, respectively.

But by eighth grade, only half as many girls as boys are interested in making a career in science.

Ride was convinced this had nothing to do with aptitude, but with the kind of encouragement that girls get. And she was determined to change that.

That is a legacy, she knew, that will last far longer than the eight days she spent aboard a space ship.

By  |  08:49 PM ET, 07/23/2012

 
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