Professor Donald Elder – 50 Greatest Americans – Sally Ride

Oct 12, 2015 by


An Interview with Professor Donald Elder – 50 Greatest Americans – Sally Ride

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Professor Elder, while we should certainly highly regard Alan Shepherd, John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong as great Americans, we should also recognize Sally Ride for her accomplishments. Where and when was she born and what was her early childhood like?

Sally Ride was born in Los Angeles, California, on May 26, 1951. Much of what she accomplished in her life is due to the influence of her parents as she was growing up. In the words of her mother, Sally was raised “to excel, not conform.” This was certainly not the norm for a family in the United States during the 1950s. Because of this attitude that her parents instilled in her, Sally never shied away from participating in an activity that was regarded as being predominantly part of the male sphere. In particular, she excelled in sports, mathematics, and the sciences. A particularly important moment in her life came during her early teenage years when her parents gave her a 16 inch-telescope. Looking into the night sky gave her a fascination with outer space, and interest that would never wane.

  1. Where did she go to high school and college?

While she was a very good all-around athlete, Sally’s best sport was tennis. By the time that she was in 8th grade, she was ranked 20th in the Girls 12 and Under category in Southern California. She also played doubles with a girl named Whitney Grant. Grant’s father recognized Sally’s potential, and offered to help her get into the Westlake School for Girls for high school. This school had an excellent tennis program, but it also was known for its first-rate academics. Thriving in this all-girls school environment, Sally excelled in both tennis and the sciences. In 1968, Sally graduated from high school and accepted a full-ride scholarship to Swarthmore College. Although she did well academically, Sally began to question her decision to attend Swarthmore after three semesters because of tennis. She had easily won back-to-back Eastern Collegiate Women’s Singles championships, but decided that the quality of the opponents she was playing was inferior to what she had faced in Southern California.

As a result, she transferred to UCLA for the spring semester of her sophomore year. She didn’t have the type of success in tennis there that she had hoped for, however, and she decided to transfer to Stanford University for her junior year. She would receive her Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D. from that institution.

  1. How did she first get involved in NASA?

In a story that is almost too good to be true, Sally Ride’s involvement with NASA was the result of reading a student newspaper. Having stopped by the Stanford student union to get a pastry and a cup of coffee before class one morning in 1977, she glanced at the front page of the student newspaper to pass the time while partaking of her refreshments, she saw the headline “NASA to Recruit Women.” Knowing that this meant the agency would now consider females for its astronaut corps, she immediately wrote a letter to NASA asking for an application. Over 1200 other American women did the same. By September of 1977, NASA had selected 21 of them as potential astronauts. A lengthy screening process then took place, and in January of 1978 she learned that she was one of six females that had been selected for the astronaut training program. She would remain a part of NASA for the next nine years.

  1. Now, her accomplishments are indeed staggering. Can you elaborate on some of her major feats?

When Sally became an astronaut, no American had flown in space since the last mission to the Skylab space station ended in February of 1974. Given the prohibitively high costs involved in producing the rockets used in space flight, President Richard Nixon had decided to stop purchasing these devices. But he had given NASA permission to go ahead with a program that would utilize a reusable space vehicle to take astronauts into outer space. Known as the Space Shuttle, this program was still in the developmental stage when Sally became a part of NASA. Orbital tests of the space shuttle began in April of 1981, and the first mission with astronauts on board took place in November of 1982. Part of the ground crew for the first mission, Sally finally got the chance to fly on the space shuttle Challenger in June of 1983. With this, she became the first American female in outer space.

A year later, she flew another mission on the Challenger. Unfortunately, while Sally was training for her third mission, a Challenger flight ended in tragedy. Sally was asked to serve on the commission that investigated the disaster, and when that group had issued its final report NASA asked her to take the lead role in writing a report outlining a future for the space agency. Once she had turned in her report, Sally resigned from NASA and accepted a position at the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University.

In 1989, she became a professor of Physics at the University of California-San Diego. After a mission of the space shuttle Columbia ended in disaster in 2001, Sally was asked to serve on a panel to investigate the cause of that accident. She was the only individual that was a member of both the Challenger and Columbia panels. She wrote or co-wrote seven books, and remained active until a few months before her death from pancreatic cancer in 2012.

  1. I know that in her later years she encouraged and mentored females to pursue science. Can you give us a synopsis?

From the moment that she was selected as an astronaut, Sally knew that her accomplishments in the field could serve as an inspiration to American women. She felt that this was especially true for young females. If they were led to believe (as Sally had through her parents) that women could succeed in any field, they would thus have a much better chance of embracing that message than if they were told that as adults. Accordingly, she established a company known as Sally Ride Science. This endeavors to create interesting an informative math and science related activities that can be implemented in our nation’s schools. These are particularly designed to encourage females to become interested in the program of studies we currently call STEM. Headquartered in San Diego, Sally Ride Science has continued to operate even though its founder passed away in 2012.

  1. What have I neglected to ask?

Sally Ride was clearly a pathbreaker in American history through being our first woman in outer space. She never lost sight of that fact, and used her fame to help encourage women to continue her efforts to establish gender equity. Interestingly, it turned out that she was also the first astronaut to fit into another category. Unknown to all but a few people during her lifetime, Sally had a female partner for the last 27 years of her life. At the present time, she thus stands as the only LGBT astronaut that we are aware of. This distinction makes her a rarity in American history: a true pioneer for two very different reasons.

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