Astronaut Sally Ride and the Burden of Being The First



On June 15, 1983, three days before launch aboard Space Shuttle Challenger, Sally Ride takes a last look at Houston before taking off in a T-38 jet, bound for NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After a few days of preparation at KSC, Ride and four other astronauts became the first NASA five-member crew to fly in space as they lifted off in the Challenger from Launch Pad 39A.

When one of Sally Ride’s college friends inquired about her astrophysics major, Ride replied simply, “It’s about space.” Yet she claimed she didn’t always aspire to be an astronaut. The space program was still a closed-door club—inaccessible to her—when she went through school in the early 1970s. Ride was content to pursue an academic career until NASA undertook a nationwide effort to recruit women and let them know the club had room for more than white male fighter pilots. Then and only then did she start itching for orbit.

Many biographers are tempted to characterize history-making Americans as born rebels who knew from the beginning that they wanted to storm the gates. What’s refreshing about Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space is that Lynn Sherr paints an evenhanded portrait of Ride as an iconic American whose accomplishments are inseparable from the second-wave feminist moment in which she reached them. The two women became friends when Sherr covered the space program for ABC News, and Sherr is clearly proud of having rubbed elbows with her. (Sherr, who has some name-dropping tendencies, also mentions introducing Ride to Betty Friedan.) Ride was unapologetically feminist, but she didn’t make career choices with politics in mind. She followed her interests. “I think she was twenty years ahead of her time in her absolutely unstated demand to be treated as an equal,” an early college boyfriend tells Sherr. “She just asserted herself in a way that said, ‘I’m here and I’m capable and I’m doing it.’”


Ride’s first word was “No.” As a young child growing up in Southern California, she called herself “Sassy.” Playing shortstop for the Dodgers was, her mother told her, the only thing she couldn’t do as a girl. Ride was a high-school and college tennis champ years before Title IX mandated that those programs be fairly funded and that schools dole out sports scholarships to women in equal measure to men, and she was the only woman in her first undergraduate physics classes. In 1970—the year she transferred to Stanford, where she would go on to complete her bachelor’s degree and earn a master’s and a Ph.D.—only about 3 percent of doctoral candidates in physics nationwide were women. (This hasn’t changed dramatically. The New York Times reported last year that “one-fifth of physics Ph.D.’s in this country are awarded to women, and only about half of those women are American.”)

Ride’s research was in astrophysics, and she had paid attention to headlines about the men of Apollo 11 training for America’s first space missions in the 1960s—a bravado-heavy group mythologized by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff.  At the same time the “Right Stuff” guys were training in the California desert, a group of female pilots—the so-called Mercury 13—were also going through rounds of testing to determine their fitness for space. When the program was abruptly canceled, the women would not go quietly. In 1962, they lobbied Vice President Lyndon Johnson, a champion of the space program, urging him to sign a letter declaring that “sex should not be a reason for disqualifying a candidate for orbital flight.” Johnson answered that the matter was out of his hands, adding to the bottom of a draft letter, “Let’s stop this now!”—“this” being the conversation about women in space, not sexism at NASA.

It wasn’t until ten years later, after the passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, that NASA, forced to consider women, created a diversity hiring initiative. At around the same time, the agency created a new category of astronaut to join pilots on space flights. This shift meant everything for women. Where astronauts had previously been culled from the ranks of male fighter pilots, a “mission specialist” could be any highly trained individual with relevant expertise. NASA put out an open call, encouraging women and minorities to apply with ads in Ebony and appeals to the Society of Women Engineers. This effort resulted in the Stanford Daily headline that caught Sally Ride’s eye: “NASA to Recruit Women.”

At a time when we’re still trying to figure out how to diversify math and sciences, and the tech industry is known for sexism as much as innovation, this is an important lesson. Ride was not a woman who decided she wanted to be an astronaut, ignored the fact that the program only appealed to men, and broke through by her willpower. She was an incredibly smart woman, well suited to a career in the space program, who never considered applying until a NASA effort convinced her—and women like her—that it was a possibility. “Now,” Sherr writes of the weeks after Ride submitted her application, “it was all she wanted to do.”

At the time, some NASA administrators failed to see how their effort to broaden recruiting led to a surge in diverse applicants. It used to be “difficult to choose women because of their lack of qualification,” NASA’s first flight director, Christopher Kraft, told ABC News after the agency announced its new astronaut class would contain six women and four minority men. “I think that in the last few years, because of the women’s movement frankly, women are much more qualified.” While the women’s movement was indeed having an effect on politics and culture, Gloria Steinem didn’t spend time in physics labs or test-flight cockpits helping women improve their qualifications for space work. The feminist movement changed the perception of women’s potential. So would Ride.

NASA had to make some adjustments to accommodate the women in Ride’s astronaut class and later as it prepared to send her to space. It added a women’s locker room, which astronaut Judy Resnik, who later died in the Challenger explosion, festooned with a Tom Selleck poster. Rather than force astronauts to use urine-catching devices that resembled condoms, NASA added commodes to space vessels. Tampons were packed with their strings connecting them, like a strip of sausages, so they wouldn’t float away. Engineers asked Ride, “Is 100 the right number?” She would be in space for a week. “That would not be the right number,” she told them. At every turn, her difference was made clear to her. When it was announced Ride had been named to a space flight mission, her shuttle commander, Bob Crippen, who became a lifelong friend and colleague, introduced her as “undoubtedly the prettiest member of the crew.” At another press event, a reporter asked Ride how she would react to a problem on the shuttle: “Do you weep?”

Though she met Ride at the frenzied peak of her popularity, Sherr writes, “I did not realize the psychic price she paid for being the first American woman in space.” To be first is to relinquish the complicated specifics of your story and become a caricature, a stand-in for the ideals of a movement or for the hope and pain of a moment in history. When NASA recruited Ride’s class, it was wise enough to select six women rather than one token. “Everyone was watching them,” said Carolyn Huntoon, a biochemist and NASA middle manager who became the female recruits’ unofficial den mother. The women of Ride’s class forged strong bonds. On the night before Ride’s first space flight, astronaut Anna Fisher, then eight months pregnant, kept watch in the darkened cockpit of the shuttle.

Only one could be first. For Ride, already a private person, the feeling of being under the microscope was ever present. She became adept at giving cheerful nonanswers to prying questions. At various points in her life, she did have something to hide. Ride was married to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley at the time of her two flights but also had serious relationships with women. When a college friendship turned into something more, “we pretty much kept to ourselves,” says her then-girlfriend Molly Tyson. This was a few years after Stonewall, but the gay-rights movement had yet to go national. Ride attended an anti-war march in Washington and was interested in the nascent women’s movement.

But coming out doesn’t seem to have occurred to her and certainly would have jeopardized her chance to go to space if not killed it outright. Around 1990—seven years after Ride’s historic flight—NASA management quietly ordered a working group of physicians to declare homosexuality a “psychiatrically disqualifying condition.” (The rule didn’t end up going through, and although no astronaut has ever come out, NASA says it doesn’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.) Some old friends like Sherr found out about Ride’s sexuality for the first time in her obituary, which revealed that she had spent her last 27 years in a committed relationship with a woman, Tam O’Shaughnessy. “Of course,” Sherr writes, Ride “was also a superb compartmentalizer.”

She had to be. Ride understood that she was a role model. “I saw it in the eyes of the girls and the women and the grandmothers that I met, what it meant to them,” she said in 2008. While she accepted the role of astronaut as public servant, playing nice with a Reagan administration whose politics she opposed, she did draw the line sometimes. She refused to appear on an NBC tribute to NASA hosted by comedian Bob Hope, because, she said, “I don’t like the way he exploits women.”

After two flights and a few stints as ground commander of mission control through the mid-1980s, the 1986 Challenger explosion made Ride decide she wouldn’t go to space again. Ride played a critical role in the blue-ribbon commission appointed to investigate the disaster, which killed seven people due to a preventable equipment failure. She then spent a year working to develop a strategic plan for NASA. The Ride Report outlined four bold initiatives, including a push to launch satellites to monitor and record climate change on planet Earth—a remarkably farsighted idea for an agency previously focused on exploring new territory rather than monitoring our own.

Ride retired from NASA in 1987 and never returned, though both the Clinton and Obama administrations sought to make her NASA administrator. She did, however, play a critical role on the commission that investigated the Columbia explosion in 2003, making her the only person on both inquiries. The rest of her career was focused on educating new scientists, in academia at the University of California, San Diego, and later as the founder of Sally Ride Science, a for-profit company that seeks to stoke and sustain girls’ (and boys’) interest in science. This, she hoped, would be her legacy. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2011, she died 16 months later. “Being first was fine,” Sherr writes, “but she didn’t want to be the only one.”

This article will appear in the July/August issue of The American Prospect magazine.

You may also like