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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

First: The Astrophysics and Astronautics of Sally Ride

Heroes are supposed to be monodimensional, startling and exceptional in one narrow aspect of life and a complex, barely functioning mess when it comes to everything else. It makes us comfortable as normal humans – ‘Well, I might not have written Der Ring des Nibelungen, but at least I’m not a serial adulterer anti-semite who can’t not wear silk.’

And then there’s Sally Ride (1951–2012), the professional level tennis player, Stanford astrophysicist, T-38 jet pilot, giant robotic arm jockey, double astronaut, international educator, and successful multi-million business owner who made a nation of girls dream of space flight and defined NASA’s operational goals for a generation, all while hiding a multi-decade lesbian partnership from the press and, at the end, silently battling pancreatic cancer. She’s Captain Marvel, Steve Rogers, and Tony Stark all rolled into one five foot five tall bundle of concentration and purpose whose absence at the rudder of American space flight is palpable.

How did she do it? How did she succeed at everything she undertook to touch? Her upbringing certainly helped – her family was of long Norwegian stock who supported her in everything she did without smothering her in that support. They weren't a family that said I Love You but they would advise her to keep going when her teachers said that science wasn't something she ought to be interested in, and they drove her all over the state in support of her burgeoning tennis career when it became clear that she had a preternatural gift for intelligently controlling the direction of a match.

She was a sports freak who was also a first class nerd, and instead of making a choice between one or the other, she elected to dive into both, studying astrophysics in college while competing in the nascent world of women’s tennis, marveling both at man’s landing on the moon in 1969 and at Billie Jean King’s defeat of Bobby Riggs in 1973. Borders were expanding, but the question was, what could Ride’s place be in the evolving revolution?

One of the legacies of her upbringing was a tendency to emotional compartmentalisation, to solving problems through a thorough and bullet-pointed analysis of the issues at hand and a dedication to solid work, repeated until all is perfect. That combination of emotional control and capacity for perfectionist repetition made her an ideal astronaut and administrator, but it came at a cost. In her private life, relationship after relationship failed at the point of her absolute reluctance to discuss feelings and her tendency to make people subservient to the latest Mission. In academic life, as a researcher in astrophysics, her advisors saw her as absolutely thorough and conscientious, with a genius for carrying out the experimental suggestions of others, but with a limited ability to make her own imaginative leaps or to propose fresh avenues of potential research.

Her time at Stanford University included work with Dr Arthur Walker on the problem of modeling x-ray absorption by interstellar gas, and research with the newly developed free-electron laser. An FEL accelerates electrons to nearly the speed of light in a magnetic field, ultimately producing a fine-tunable bunching of those electrons into high energy bursts, which research would become the focus of Ride’s post-astronaut scientific work. It was cutting-edge high-energy science which allowed for the intellectual teamwork that Ride loved and a combination of challenging finesse with dynamic bang that was a part of everything she did, from tennis to business. But then, in 1977, an advertisement in the Stanford paper came to her attention, announcing the ultimate in Bang.

NASA was looking for a new generation of astronauts, and was extending their pool at last beyond test pilots in a search for ‘Mission Specialists,’’ who would specialise in non-piloting tasks for the newly proposed space shuttle program. Thirty Five were to be selected, and they were accepting women applicants. Thousands applied, but Ride’s combination of intellectual rigor, emotional detachment, and physical discipline earned her a spot on the ‘Thirty Five New Guys’ squad alongside five other equally phenomenal women Astronaut Candidates (or AsCans, in one of the more unfortunate cases of NASA’s propensity for abbreviation).

Photo by NASA

Those six were competing for the title of First American Woman in Space. The Russians had placed two women in space already, Valentina Tereshkova in 1963, and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982, the second of whom also became, in 1984, the first woman to walk in space. But to the thousands of schoolchildren suddenly captured by the notion that, yes, in America you could be a girl and grow up to walk in space, none of that mattered. The press swarmed the women candidates while largely ignoring their male counterparts, giving them all a taste of the invasiveness whoever became the First could expect as a matter of course for the rest of their lives.

But for the moment, it was to work, memorizing the thousands of switches on the shuttle, running through emergency protocols and simulations, physical training, jet piloting, specialised academic courses on engineering and orbital physics, a year’s worth of intense dedication that Ride throve in. Her trainers discovered that she was a natural jet pilot and had an even more pronounced gift for operating the gigantic robotic arm that would manipulate the shuttle’s expensive payloads. She logged hundreds of simulator hours, practising every motion and sequence that the arm could conceivably call for, like Ripley working the load lifters in Aliens. She was organised, detail-oriented, kept calm under intense pressure, and had full command of the most complicated and important components of the shuttle mission.

She was tapped to be the first ever woman CapCom, the link between the astronauts on the space shuttle and mission control, and performed flawlessly there as well. And while Anna Fisher (a surgeon), Judy Resnik (an electrical engineer), Shannon Lucid (a biochemist), Margaret Seddon (another surgeon), and Kathryn Sullivan (a geologist and oceanographer) would all eventually go into space (Resnik tragically aboard the Challenger mission which exploded), it was soon evident that Ride would be the first.

Ride would make that trip twice, her groundbreaking flight aboard STS-7 in 1983, and again in 1984, logging over three hundred hours of space time and becoming America’s biggest space celebrity since Neil Armstrong. When Challenger exploded in January of 1986, Ride was placed on the team responsible for uncovering what happened. She discovered systemic carelessness that had been the result of NASA’s decision to press for a densely packed launch schedule and fast turn-around time. Precautions had been tossed aside by an organisation desperate to spark the public’s fascination again. Ride, disillusioned by NASA, decided to leave the organisation, and her marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley.

She had been, in fact, carrying out an affair for quite some time with Tam O’Shaugnessy, a twenty seven year relationship that would in fact only be made public upon Ride’s death. She had had a brief lesbian relationship in college which she had told her close friends about, but her relationship with Tam was the first time she had been able to live on close terms with somebody for over five years. Conscious of her responsibility as a hero and her obligation to NASA to avoid scandal, she felt she couldn't ever acknowledge their relationship, and only took the step of registering as domestic partners just before her death in 2012.

Free of NASA, free of living a marital lie, she returned to academia, conducting laser and nuclear detection research at Stanford and then UCSD while at the same time serving as an advisor to multiple corporations and governmental agencies on the future of space travel and the use of technology to monitor climate change. She had, in fact, been asked by NASA to compile a report on the redefinition of NASA’s long term mission goals, a massive undertaking that became the Ride Report. She argued strenuously for a Mission to Earth, which would use the resources of NASA to discover more about the planet we’re on, and confirm the damage we’re doing to it.

Photo by Bill Hrybyk

As if conducting high energy laser research, defining NASA’s vision for decades to come, advising the government and private sector, and keeping a secret relationship from the press wasn't enough, Ride became a businesswoman, starting a company, Sally Ride Science, with the goal of finding new ways to inspire girls and young women with a passion for science. In collaboration with NASA, she created first EarthKam and then MoonKam, which allowed students to track the path of lunar and terrestrial satellites and request specific photos from space in an age before Google Maps made the micro-inspection of the globe routine. She organised science festivals that brought girls into contact with female scientists and astronauts, and published a whole series of books showing the important contributions that women have made to just about every conceivable branch of STEM.

She had fit the experience of seven or eight lives into her first six decades when came the cancer. Her friends noticed a yellowing of her skin, and made her go to the doctor for an exam where a massive tumour was found on her pancreas, a location where survival, even with the most vigorous treatment, stood at 2 per cent.

And she fought.

And she lost, the laser-wielding astronaut businesswoman who no longer had the energy to stand, attended faithfully by the love of her life whom she was not allowed to marry. She hadn't told the press of her illness, and so it was with cold shock that the world found out simultaneously of her death, and her orientation, on July 23, 2012. She was gone, and we hadn't had a chance to say good-bye or express in a massive flood all the things she had meant to so many of us.

Since 1983, fifty American women have flown in space.


Lynn Sherr’s Sally Ride: The First American Woman in Space (2014) is pretty much the only substantial book that has the advantage of close access to all the people Sally Ride had kept hidden away during her life. It would have been nice to have more on her scientific research, and the writing itself is sort of exceptionally average, but its account of Ride’s emotional semi-paralysis and occupational efficiency are engrossing and true.

And if you'd like to read more about women astronomers like Jill Tarter, check out my History of Women in Astronomy and Space Exploration, which you can order from Amazon, or from Pen and Sword US or UK.


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