Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space

WHEN THE COLUMBIA AC­CI­DENT

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Reviews & Previews - By Lynn Sherr. Si­mon & Schus­ter, 2014. 400 pp., $28.

hap­pened, Sally Ride was ap­pointed to the board that con­ducted the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and I briefly worked with her in my role as an in­ves­ti­ga­tor. Ride was one of the most in­tensely no-non­sense/all-busi­ness peo­ple I’ve ever en­coun­tered; I found it dis­con­cert­ing even try­ing to talk to her. I’ve tried over the years to not al­low first im­pres­sions to set in con­crete, and so I dis­missed my ex­pe­ri­ence. But af­ter read­ing Lynn Sherr’s ex­cel­lent Ride biog­ra­phy, it’s clear that Ride was a mas­ter at putting up walls to keep all but her clos­est friends out, per­haps al­most too good at it. Cer­tainly we all got an in­di­ca­tion of that when Ride died of pan­cre­atic cancer in the sum­mer of 2012, and we learned that she had been ro­man­ti­cally in­volved with a woman for al­most three decades. She didn’t want many peo­ple to know that, just as she didn’t want many peo­ple to know about her cancer.

It is the bi­og­ra­pher’s job to help us to know their sub­ject, no mat­ter how pri­vate he or she is, and Sherr does a great job. We learn about Ride’s early life—she con­sid­ered a ca­reer as a ten­nis pro be­fore pur­su­ing as­tron­omy—and then of course her se­lec­tion as America’s first fe­male as­tro­naut, when she was picked to fly aboard Columbia for the STS-7 mis­sion in 1983. She was mobbed by the me­dia be­fore and af­ter the flight.

In 1984 she flew again. Another shut­tle as­sign­ment was can­celed af­ter the 1986 Chal­lenger ac­ci­dent, and af­ter a brief stint at NASA head­quar­ters in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. (Neil Arm­strong con­sid­ered be­ing sent to Wash­ing­ton the same as be­ing sen­tenced to pur­ga­tory), Ride left NASA for what she con­sid­ered the far more pleas­ant at­mos­phere of teach­ing and run­ning an aca­demic de­part­ment in San Diego. She also cre­ated a foun­da­tion to en­cour­age girls to en­ter sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy.

This book gets us as close to know­ing Ride as we will ever get, but cer­tainly there are things about her we will never know. I sus­pect that Ride would be per­fectly happy with that.

DWAYNE DAY IS A SE­NIOR PRO­GRAM

OF­FI­CER AT THE AERO­NAU­TICS AND SPACE

EN­GI­NEER­ING BOARD OF THE NA­TIONAL

RE­SEARCH COUN­CIL.

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