To the Stars May You Return

“All adventures, especially into new territory, are scary.” – Sally Ride

Yesterday the country suffered a great loss. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, died on July 23, 2012 in her San Diego home.

There is so much that can be said about this great woman. Just last Friday I said that every man and woman involved in the space program is a hero, but Sally Ride stands so tall even among that auspicious club. When she rode up into orbit on the shuttle Challenger in 1983, the Soviets had been sending women into space for twenty years already. However, she managed to break a long established all-male tradition and, within five years of joining NASA, eventually left our tiny little rock and took one of the first hesitant steps into the greater unknown.

Ride’s status cannot be overstated. In the 90’s, Eileen Collins, a woman who joined the space program specifically because she was inspired by Ride, became the first female shuttle pilot and eventually the first female commander. Despite this, Sally Ride was a very private person, sometimes regretting that she was the first American woman to ride on the shuttle, a milestone she thinks we should have long completed.

And it turns out that wasn’t the only milestone that Ride represented. Ride officially came out as a lesbian in her obituary, mentioning that she leaves behind her partner of 27 years, Dr. Tam O’Shaughnessy, making her also the first LGBT person in space that we know of. Had she come out in 1978, she would have never been allowed into the space program, when stigma against queer people made them a security risk due to blackmail fears.

After she retired from NASA in 1987, she became a professor at Stanford University and part of the university’s Center for International Security and Arms Control. In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science, a company designed to inspire in children a love of science and math.

There is honestly very little we know about this great lady, this intellectual and cultural giant who kept so very private. We can only divine from her actions the extent of her passion, the depth of her knowledge, the breadth of her love, but those all become very clear with only a cursory look at what she accomplished in a too brief 61 years.

What she would likely deny is that she herself was an inspirational figure. About that she would be wrong. Even in death, she can go on to encourage so many others to attempt to solve the great mysteries of our time. She will be remembered as somebody who overcame challenges for the love of knowing, who had to work twice as hard as anyone else in her field to get there, and dedicated her life to finding and transmitting to others the mechanisms by which our universe works.

Carl Sagan famously pointed out that every molecule in our bodies was forged in the heart of a star. They very briefly coalesce and, through processes we only understand the merest piece of, become us. And then, in an eyeblink, it’s over. But those molecules live on, the energy of our bodies dissipating into the world around us, exciting other molecules, starting new processes. And perhaps, in Ride’s case, one day returning to the stars where they were born and where she, for a handful of days, changed history for all us backward, sentient mammals on our tiny blue world. She will be missed, but never forgotten.

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