Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space
WHEN THE COLUMBIA ACCIDENT
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