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It’s been 40 years since Sally Ride became the first woman from the United States to go into space. June 18 marks the anniversary of Ride’s groundbreaking six-day mission aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983.
The US space program ran more than two decades before a female astronaut claimed a seat on a NASA rocket. In the early years of the space agency, officials considered spaceflight a feat suitable only for men, and particularly military test pilots.
Ride was also posthumously the first recognized gay person to become an astronaut.
According to former NASA astronaut Steve Hawley, who was married to Ride from 1982 to 1987, she has not been open about her personal life. However, the educational company she co-founded, Sally Ride Science, revealed more about her personal life in her 2012 obituary. in recognition of her longtime partner Tam O’Shaughnessy after Ride died of pancreatic cancer.
But since women were first introduced into the US astronaut corps, NASA hasn’t looked back.
The US space program currently holds the list of the most ethnically and gender-diverse astronauts in its history, although an audit by NASA’s Office of the Inspector General found that a decades-long strategy has not had a significant impact on diversity statistics in the workforce and leadership agency had . Nonetheless, earlier this year astronaut Christina Koch was selected as the first woman, along with astronaut Victor Glover, the first black man to travel to the moon as a crew member on the Artemis II mission.
Ride emerged in the 1970s with her scientific acumen, her insatiable desire to serve her interests, and her demand for equal treatment, despite the societal constraints that were only just beginning to relax, recalls journalist Lynn Sherr, who Ride’s biographer is .
“Remember – Sally was born in 1951. That was a time when space was science fiction and women’s rights were almost nonexistent,” Sherr told CNN.
She recalls that the bond she shared with Ride deepened rapidly as a result of their shared understanding of the challenges of navigating a man’s world as a woman: Ride in the Astronaut Corps and before that in the field in physics, and Sherr in the predominantly gendered area. separate field of journalism.
“She just got it,” Sherr said of Ride’s ability to navigate gender issues. “She knew how to be smart, brave and cool, how to work your ass off, how to do your job — and do it really well.”
Sherr’s book Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space was first published in 2014. It offers an intimate and holistic account of Ride’s life. Her story is sometimes told from the perspective of Sherr, who worked at ABC News during the historical moments of Ride and became her close confidante, even sharing family vacations with her.
The bio tells fascinating anecdotes – including the time Ride played in a mixed doubles tennis spectacle against profile legend Billie Jean King while the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sons served as ball boys. And then there was the case when Ride traveled to Edwards Air Force Base in California to watch an early test flight of the space shuttle alongside King Charles III, then Prince of Wales.
Sherr also included the now infamous story of Ride recalling how NASA engineers asked her how many tampons she would need for a week-long flight into space. (“They asked, ‘Is one hundred the right number?'” Ride said, according to the book.)
CNN ran a brief interview with Sherr in honor of the 40th anniversary of Ride’s first spaceflight.
One of the few women among the throng of male physics graduate students at Stanford University, Ride didn’t seriously consider a job as an astronaut until she spotted an article in the Stanford Daily in 1977 about NASA’s recruitment of women, Sherr says in her A book.
Ride got her spot as an astronaut candidate after initially submitting an application through the mail — one of more than 8,000 people who have done so. Of these, only 1,251 women were considered qualified by NASA.
“There were no female role models,” Sherr said.
The Soviet Union sent the first woman into space. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was launched into orbit in 1963. It would be two decades before the next woman flew into space – another Soviet cosmonaut, Svetlana Savitskaya, in 1982. Ride’s first flight followed a year later.
Before NASA’s decision to allow female astronauts, there was opposition to the idea of women in the astronaut corps in the 1960s. Sherr’s book contains a copy of a letter about women’s involvement in space to which then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote, “Let’s stop this now!”
But these barriers could not last forever.
“Once we finally realized that we could do it, we could do anything,” Sherr said, referring to women. “That’s when we started kicking in the doors and getting where we wanted to be.”
Ride might have been the country’s most famous person after her first mission in space, but Sherr said the spotlight was on her. Despite their closeness, Ride Sherr has also kept her sexuality and even her cancer diagnosis a secret.
“Her mother knew she was an introvert. She didn’t want to share her private life with the world,” Sherr said. “She wasn’t someone who wanted to say, ‘Look at me, look at what I do!’ She wanted to do it, maybe get credit for it, and then she wanted to go ahead and do her own thing.”
Sherr only found out that Ride’s partner was O’Shaughnessy, a fellow scientist and former tennis pro who had been with her for 27 years when Ride passed away.
“I think — and I’m pretty sure that’s right — that she did it in part to protect NASA,” Sherr said of why Ride kept her sexuality private. “She thought there were more important things to talk about.”
Sherr remains friends with Ride’s partner O’Shaughnessy, who in 2001 co-founded Sally Ride Science, now a nonprofit at the University of California, San Diego. The organization encourages women’s participation in STEM subjects and hosts annual panels moderated by Sherr.
Ride’s ambition and love of knowledge extended well beyond her role as an astronaut, Sherr noted.
Ride was a professor of physics at UC San Diego and lectured on a course she called “Physics for Poets.” (She had double majors in English and Physics.) She co-wrote children’s books with O’Shaughnessy. She served on the presidential commissions that investigated both space shuttle disasters – Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. She was also a noted environmentalist.
“The study of humans was not their first priority,” Sherr said. “It cared about planet Earth. And that was in the 1980s and 1990s – she was way ahead of her time.”
Ride broke perhaps the toughest barrier for women in spaceflight, but Sherr said there was a need to recognize and celebrate each subsequent pioneering step: Eileen Collins, the first female mission commander of a US spacecraft; the first all-female spacewalk by NASA’s Koch and Jessica Meir; and – soon – Koch’s upcoming mission as the first woman to travel to the moon.
Despite the fact that 652 people went into space, fewer than 100 were women, according to NASA spokesman Rob Navias. And according to the United Nations, only about one in five workers in the space industry is female.
“Do I think by now Sally would have thought we were further along than we are? Yes,” Sherr said. “We have to keep doing it. We cannot go backwards.”