Folks who read my website and this blog know I’m a bit two-faced. Like the Roman god Janus I peer both into the past and the future. I read science fiction/fact with the same fervor I read (and write) historical fiction/fact. I love it when science meets history in such passions as archaeology, palentology and geology. This post is a tribute from my science self to a remarkable woman who made history in my lifetime. Sally Ride was a hero of mine and an inspiration to a generation of girls. From the Sally Ride Science website:
Sally Ride died peacefully on July 23rd, 2012 after a courageous 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Sally lived her life to the fullest, with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, joy, and love. Her integrity was absolute; her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless.
Sally was a physicist, the first American woman to fly in space, a science writer, and the president and CEO of Sally Ride Science. She had the rare ability to understand the essence of things and to inspire those around her to join her pursuits.
Sally’s historic flight into space captured the nation’s imagination and made her a household name. She became a symbol of the ability of women to break barriers and a hero to generations of adventurous young girls. After retiring from NASA, Sally used her high profile to champion a cause she believed in passionately—inspiring young people, especially girls, to stick with their interest in science, to become scientifically literate, and to consider pursuing careers in science and engineering.
In addition to Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years, Sally is survived by her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear; her niece, Caitlin, and nephew, Whitney; her staff of 40 at Sally Ride Science; and many friends and colleagues around the country.
“Ride, Sally Ride!”
I wanted to be an astronaut since I was little. I followed all the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches; clipping news items and storing them in a banana box I got from the local grocery. I noticed there were no female US astronauts, but the Russians sent up Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova in 1963 to become the first woman and first civilian in space. The US couldn’t be far behind, right? Then NASA scrubbed the Mercury 13 project (First Lady Astronaut Trainees or FLATs.) It was clear that no woman need apply to that boys’ club. Disappointed, I still hoped. I was only eleven, still time to change the boys’ minds and let me play.
As the years passed, I realized that dream–for me–was not possible. More and more women burst through glass ceilings and the “firsts” piled up. Finally in 1978, NASA cracked. The shuttle program needed more than cowboy “right stuff.” They needed scientists and engineers. Thirty-five new astronauts were selected–six of them female. But it was to be over twenty years after Tereshkova before an American woman went into space. I still remember being choked with pride and longing when Sally Ride soared into the blue sky over Cape Canaveral–and history–on June 18, 1983 aboard the Challenger Shuttle.
I also remember the degrading questions about personal hygiene asked by the media in the pre-launch interview and the tasteless jokes about matching shoes and purse by late night comedy hosts. Sally handled them with grace and aplomb. As more women flew into space, thankfully, those insults passed. Sally retired from NASA in 1987 after two space flights and took up the challenge of inspiring girls and women to enter science and engineering fields. It’s been a hard slog. As of 2009, the U.S. Department of Commerce reports that although women make up half of the college-educated workforce, they hold only 24% of all jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM jobs.) They speculate the causes are, “a lack of female role models, gender stereotyping, and less family-friendly flexibility in the STEM fields.” Sally was a role-model and more. She founded Sally Ride Science in 2001 to create innovative classroom materials, classroom programs, and professional development training for teachers in math and science. She co-wrote seven science books for children (six with her long-time partner Tam O’Shaughnessy) and directed NASA-funded outreach programs to girls and boys in middle-school.
Sally’s passing gives me the opportunity to mourn the slow death of the manned space program. With the retirement of the Shuttle Program and government cut backs to NASA, it’s not only girls who are turning their eyes away from the stars. Perhaps the “free market” will step in. Perhaps not. But we’ve lost another generation of space explorers. Fifty-seven women from all over the globe have flown in space (as of this post.) Four died on the job: Judith Resnick and Christa McAuliffe on the Challenger (January 28, 1986); and Kalpana Chawla and Laurel B. Clark on the Columbia (February 1, 2003.) Another, Janice E. Voss, died of breast cancer on February 6, 2012. Another fourteen women completed astronaut training. Of those, half retired without making it into space and one died in a private plane accident, leaving six women still eagerly awaiting their chance to soar. I’ll never make it into space, but maybe my daughter will. For all the women who reached for the stars and the girls still turning their eyes to the heavens, this poem is for you:
“You can be anything you want to be!”
I have stars in my eyes.
I scan the sky for Echo, a silver orb spinning through the dark.
By day I hide under my desk from the menacing mushrooms.
“One giant leap for mankind.”
I have hope in my heart.
I watch the pictures from the moon, imagining a future bright with promise.
Flag-shrouded boxes stream home; students die.
“Girls can’t be astronauts.”
The weight bows my shoulders.
There are no more rockets, no more footprints on the moon.
We take back the night, but not the sky.
“How do you go to the bathroom, Dr. Ride?”
I laugh at the absurdity.
Graceful birds circle the shining globe carrying their fragile human cargo.
Others die of hunger and bombs in ancient struggles for life and dignity.
“The Challenger is gone.”
I choke on my sobs.
We stand still for years and mourn our mangled dreams.
Seven brave people lost in fire and water.
“From ‘Freedom’ to the moon to Mars.”
People are without food, in a world of poisons.
They lift their eyes to the stars and find the night filled with spies.
“You can be anything you want to be.”
I hug my daughter.
Planes, towers and bodies fall from the sky.
Wounded warriors and flag-draped boxes stream from distant shores.
“STS-135: The Last Shuttle Mission.”
I let out a long sad sigh.
Atlantis landed, shuttered sheds, astronauts on Russian rockets.
The children who carry on, will they have stars in their eyes?
I can only hope.