When we were best friends and high school classmates in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, Sally told me that she wanted to be famous, but she wanted to achieve that goal by winning a Nobel Prize. A ninth-grade science teacher had introduced her to physics and astronomy, and she intended to study the stars. After her retirement from NASA and academia, Sally, who died this past week at 61, turned her focus back to teachers — like the one she always credited with planting the seed that eventually got her to space. She hoped to motivate a new generation of teachers who might impart a love of science to their students.
It wasn’t until 1977, when she was completing her graduate work in physics at Stanford, that Sally spotted a notice in the university’s student newspaper announcing that NASA was recruiting young scientists — for the first time including women — to become astronauts. She knew instantly that this was what she wanted to do. I was thrilled, but not surprised, when she called early one morning in 1978 to tell me that she was one of six women selected.
Sally easily fitted into the mostly male, can-do engineering culture of NASA. It was a culture that valued level-headedness and good judgment; the operative slogan was “don’t screw up.”
Assigned to the team helping to design the space shuttle’s computer-operated mechanical arm, which would be used to deploy and recover satellites, Sally threw herself into the job and proved adept at manipulating the arm. That skill, as well as her coolness under pressure while assigned to a key job at Mission Control, impressed veteran astronaut Robert Crippen, who was to command the shuttle’s seventh flight, scheduled for the first half of 1983.
Before offering Sally a spot on Crippen’s crew, Christopher Kraft, director of Houston’s Johnson Space Center, warned her that she would become a historic figure and the focus of worldwide attention. “I think he wanted to give me a chance to back out,” she later recalled.
When I visited the space center several months before the flight, I watched her go from demanding sessions in a shuttle simulator — practicing for every possible mishap— to a photo shoot for the cover of Ms. magazine. Wearing a crisp blue flight suit, Sally rolled her eyes when a makeup artist applied blush and the photographer requested “a restless, smug half-smile.”
Still, she refused to worry about the pressures of becoming a national hero. “I have great confidence in my ability not to go nuts,” she told me.
Those pressures proved greater than she expected. Sally’s historic flight was front-page news all over the world. For almost half a year, her days were a succession of public appearances, goodwill trips, speeches and interviews. She couldn’t go to the grocery store without being asked for an autograph. She told me that the only time she felt she could be alone was when she was standing at a lectern, preparing to deliver a speech.
When talking about science or the space shuttle, Sally was a natural teacher — enthusiastic, engaging and clear — but she detested personal questions. Married then to fellow astronaut Steven Hawley, she was determined to keep her private life to herself. Eventually, public excitement waned, and she returned to the relatively anonymous routine of an astronaut. “Fortunately, I have an extremely forgettable face,” she quipped.
But she always enjoyed speaking with children. Kids asked questions that adults were embarrassed to ask — how the space shuttle’s toilet worked, how to make a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich while weightless. Sally realized that elementary and middle-school students were endlessly curious about space travel and that sharing her experience was a way to get them excited about science and engineering.
When she proposed writing a book about a shuttle flight, half a dozen publishers were enthusiastic — until they learned that what Sally had in mind was a children’s book, not her life story. “To Space and Back” (which I co-authored), published in 1986, was the first of seven science books that Ride wrote for children. The others were written with her longtime partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy. It’s characteristic of Sally’s love of privacy that their 27-year relationship did not become publicly known until the announcement of her death.
When the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, killing seven astronauts, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, the disaster stunned the nation — and put an end to NASA’s prospects of sending more teachers into space. Ride served as a member of the presidential commission investigating the accident. A few days after the disaster, she called me in a fury because, as one of the reporters helping to cover the disaster for The Washington Post, I had called space center employees whom I had met through her. It took years for our friendship to recover from what she saw as a betrayal.
In the years after Sally left NASA in 1987 and became a physics professor at the University of California at San Diego, she seemed to grow comfortable with her place as a hero — particularly as a role model for girls. In 2001, she started her own company, Sally Ride Science, to create books for students on key scientific concepts and careers, and to sponsor science festivals for girls in elementary and middle school. The media-shy former astronaut now regularly donned her NASA flight suit to speak at day-long festivals on university campuses that still attract hundreds of girls in the fifth through eighth grades.
At one such festival in Northern Virginia, I watched her spend more than an hour sitting at a card table in the hot sun, signing autographs and answering questions from a long line of excited girls, many of whom hoped to grow up to be astronauts.
I last saw her about 18 months ago. We met for breakfast at her favorite seaside inn in San Diego. She was enthusiastic about the recent direction of her company, which had shifted its focus from engaging middle school students to engaging their teachers. She believed that students’ natural interest in science was too often snuffed out by stereotypes about what scientists do and by subtle messages from teachers, parents and peers. She said that teachers too often offer students a heavy diet of facts instead of a chance to experiment and have fun.
“When I was growing up,” she recalled in a 2009 speech, “science and engineering were really cool.” Kids dreamed of becoming rocket designers or studying moon rocks. “That’s generally not the case today,” she said. “And that’s a problem.”
With funding from industry, her company creates research-based professional-development curricula and brings elementary and middle school teachers from across the country to attend four-day trainings. The sessions have been shown to be effective in changing teacher practices and student attitudes.
Sally had a new mission: She was determined to reach as many science teachers as she could — and through them, the girls and boys they teach — to help make the study of science interesting and meaningful to kids. Her own science teachers did that for her. Sally is gone, but let’s hope that the countless teachers and students she inspired will carry on with the task.
Susan Okie is a physician, a former medical reporter for The Washington Post and a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at Georgetown University.
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