When Sally Ride died in 2012, her obituary noted a new fact that was widely picked up: that she was survived by her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy. The first American woman in space suddenly became a more complicated figure. Now Lynn Sherr, a journalist and friend of Ride, has created a brilliant and eye-opening biography.
Sherr’s book, Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space, opens with an anecdote: She was at a school, and asked a classroom a simple question: Who was Sally Ride? The answers flooded back: The first woman on the moon? The first to step into space? A great scientist? One finally got it right: the first American woman to ride into orbit. It’s easy to remember the firsts when it comes to space travel. There’s Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong, of course, and then there’s Sally Ride, notable for being the first woman NASA sent up into space. Other than that, what’s to know? It turns out, quite a lot.
Indeed, the general public didn’t know much about the fiercely private Sally Ride. Until now — Sherr has put together an exhaustive portrait of the late astronaut’s life, reintroducing Ride to the general public in candid detail. It’s an astonishing read, especially coming out just as the #YesAllWomen hashtag has been trending world-wide. It’s interesting to look at not just the barriers that stood in Ride’s way, but the public reaction to seeing the first woman go into space.
Ride grew up during an interesting time in the United States. Born in 1951, she came of age during incredible changes in the US, particularly when it came to the Women’s Rights movement. She attended the Wastlake School For Girls, private school in Los Angles, where she developed a keen interest in science, as well as Tennis. Sherr points out her intense competitive streak through a number of early moments, particularly while on the court against instructors and classmates: she wasn’t one to lose easily.
One teacher told her mind was too scientific, without much creativity, and that she was smart, but wasted in science. Sherr reports that Ride was deeply upset at this (one of the few times anyone would see her cry), and that it helped to reinforce her desire to continue to study physics.
Following High School, she attended Swarthmore College, where she continued to play Tennis, and was on her way to becoming a nationally ranked player, when she dropped out and returned to California, tired of the cold, East Coast winters. She entered Stanford University, where she eventually earned degrees in both English and Physics. She continued to study physics at Stanford, earning her Masters and eventually her PhD in the subject. Around this time, she began her first same-sex relationship. Even in times of reform, homosexuality was extremely taboo, and it was simply something never discussed with others.
While finishing her PhD studies, NASA issued a call for new applicants to join the space program. She read the call and was immediately interested: she fit the qualifications perfectly. Soon thereafter, she was called in to be interviewed, and made the final cut and in 1978, she, along with five other women joined the next new class of astronauts, just in time for NASA to launch a new technology: the Space Shuttle.
Ride was ecstatic, but faced numerous challenges from a conservative organization populated by former military test pilots. Some weren’t willing to go along with the changes, such as Chuck Yeager, who dismissed one of the trainees. Others were more open-minded, such as Alan Bean, who was impressed with the knowledge of the women. NASA, for its part, recognized the gender and minority gap that had appeared, and was actively working to change its image before the public.
Ride and her classmates went to work, with Ride often pulling 12 hour days of coursework, training and simulations. Their two-year training regimen was cut short: they earned their Astronaut status early. It wasn’t long before she was assigned to work as CapCom for STS-2 and STS-3, worked on the development of the Canada Arm, and her first shuttle mission, STS-7, on Space Shuttle Challenger.
Sherr devotes much attention to the public and press reactions to Ride’s appointment to her first flight, as well as Ride’s reaction to the sudden fame thrust upon her. Up until this point, no American woman had gone into orbit, but she wasn’t the first: Valentina Tereshkova made her first flight in 1963, almost twenty years earlier, while Svetlana Savitskaya became the second in 1982. The American press didn’t seem interested (Tereshkova’s flight was dismissed as a publicity stunt), and was keenly interested to know whether women could function in space (they could), if they could exist in such a male-dominated environment (they did), and how they’d do simple things, like go to the bathroom or hold their hair back in zero gravity. NASA’s engineers faced a similar learning curve, and Sherr notes Ride’s amusement at some of the questions, and strained impatience with others.
Ride, it seems, was the ideal candidate for such a milestone. She was interested, and later heavily involved in working on promoting STEM education for women. From her early school days and education in science, she was also a passionate voice for equality, noting in a number of interviews that she felt that it was unfortunate that some of the same questions questioning her competence based on her gender (especially questions such as “Do you wish you were a boy?”) were still asked in America in the 1980s.
One of the things I found most striking about this book was its look at women at NASA, especially the other members of Ride’s cohort, each of whom went to space and who really haven’t gotten their due: Judith Resnik, 4th women in space, and died on the Challenger, Kathryn D. Sullivan, who was the first US woman to conduct a spacewalk and was confirmed in March 2014 by the US Senate to be the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator, Anna Lee Fisher, who was the first mother in space and currently the oldest active astronaut, Margaret Rhea Seddon, who would fly on four missions, and Shannon Lucid, who would fly on five missions, running Spacelab, among other experiments. Their stories are incredible, and Sherr does an excellent job highlighting their story, efforts and training, as well as their relationships with one another. Their shared status didn’t cement them in a small core friendship, but it did bring them together as colleagues. They were all extraordinarily qualified, and single-handedly helped to change entrenched attitudes in NASA at a pivotal time.
This biography does what few other space books have done: examine the social context in which NASA was operating, and how it adapted for its own purposes. Ironically, where Tereshkova’s flight was dismissed as a publicity stunt, Ride’s own mission garnered so much attention that it overwhelmed her, and largely eclipsed her mission, qualifications and crewmates.
Sherr takes only a short amount of time to cover Ride’s first and second trips into space, in succinct detail, and later, her work on the Challenger and Columbia disaster boards. While it’s short, this section does provide a good window into Ride’s personality and excitement at finally going into orbit and just how she operated in her role and how she dealt with fame afterward. With the loss of Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, Sherr notes that Ride lost four of her cohort-mates at once, and looks at its impact on her in the aftermath and her work on the subsequent Rogers commission. Sherr goes into detail about Ride’s personal life, examining just how she dealt with her status in American history, her personal relationships, and how she continued to act as an advocate for women in STEM fields.
The takeaway that I took from this book is that Ride’s public enigma was something that extended into her private life as well. Sherr notes that numerous friends and family members complained that she was hard to know and that she was good at keeping certain parts of her life compartmentalized. Her husband, Steve Hawley, explained that they were the perfect match because they were similar: they were quiet, and not prone to speaking when they didn’t have anything to say.
Ride was a person of action, but not someone who spoke or explained herself after the fact. Ride occupies the center stage throughout the book, but remains an enigmatic figure, save for a couple of instances, when we see Sherr connect the dots through interviews after the fact. Her missions in particular demonstrate her enthusiasm and excitement, while her work on the Rogers commission demonstrates her drive and anger. There’s an interesting point to which she refused to appear on the Johnny Carson show because of how women were portrayed on his show. Ride explained to NASA that she wasn’t interested, then took off for California to lie low. She didn’t explain herself; she just acted.
Driven, dedicated and passionate about her work for NASA and beyond, Sally Ride was and is an interesting, complicated and impressive figure in spaceflight history, and Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space sheds an incredible amount of light on the life of a woman who’s been a role model to an entire generation. At the same time, Sherr not only details Ride’s life, but the context that informed her life and career, and in doing so, has written an astonishing, eye-opening book at a time when debates over the roles of women in science and technology are at a new high. Ride would likely be excited to see the discussion, learning and teaching that’s ensued, but dismayed that in 2014, it’s still a contentious topic.