Shooting for the stars

Who was Sally Ride, the pioneering astronaut honored in Tuesday’s Google doodle?

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Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly into space, would have been 64 years old today had she not died of pancreatic cancer in July of 2012. Her birthday is honored by a series of Google doodles that change when the homepage is refreshed. Soft, whimsical drawings by animator Olivia Huynh depict Ride floating in a space shuttle, Ride working the shuttle’s robotic arm, and Ride sitting in a control room with a young girl—a nod to the astronaut’s commitment to encouraging the involvement of girls in the sciences.

Though she was, for a time, one of the most recognizable female faces in America, Sally Ride was something of an enigma. She lived a life of trailblazing, of advocacy, and of secrets.

Ride was born in Los Angeles on May 26, 1951. According to the New York Times, she was finishing her studies in physics and astrophysics at Stanford University when she saw a newspaper advertisement from NASA, seeking new astronauts. Ride sent in an application to NASA’s rigorous astronaut training program. She beat out 8,000 applicants, and was one of six women selected as part of the new cohort.

On June 18th 1983, Ride shot into orbit aboard the space shuttle Challenger. She was not the first woman to fly into space; Russian astronauts Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya had gone into orbit in 1963 and 1982, respectively. But Ride’s flight marked the first time an American woman had travelled beyond Earth’s stratosphere, and at 32, she was also the youngest American to go into space. Her journey was covered with much enthusiasm, though not always with much tact, by the media. During a press conference before the shuttle flight, Ride endured a slew of cringe-inducing questions that focused on how she would deal with her period in space, and whether or not she would wear a bra and makeup on board the shuttle.

In the face of this rather flagrant sexism, Ride was forward about her feminism. “The women’s movement had already paved the way, I think, for my coming,” she told the New York Times in 1982.

According to her biography on NASA’s website, Ride worked as a mission specialist on board the Challenger. She was responsible for going on spacewalks, conducting experiments, and working the robotic arm that released satellites into space. Ride went into orbit for a second time in 1984, and later served on disaster panels investigating the 1986 Challenger explosion and the 2003 Columbia crash.

After leaving NASA, Ride became a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. She noticed that there was a dearth of women involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), and so she founded Sally Ride Science. The organization strives to inspire students, particularly young girls and minorities, to study STEM subjects throughout their education.

Ride was an intensely private person in spite of her public profile. When she died in July of 2012, only those closest to her knew that she had been battling pancreatic cancer. And upon her death, many were shocked to learn that Ride was a lesbian. She was briefly married to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley, but by 1987, she was romantically involved with a woman named Tam O’Shaugnessy. Their relationship was only revealed in Ride’s obituary, which appeared on the Sally Ride Science website.

“Sally didn’t want to be defined by the lesbian/gay label just as she didn’t want to be defined by a gender label,” O’Shaugnessy told Ride’s friend and biographer, Lynn Sherr. “We both didn’t like categories, didn’t want to define ourselves by our sexuality.”

Ride is, according to the Washington Post, the only known LGBT astronaut. Some have wondered why Ride—so fearless in her shattering of gender barriers—hid this aspect of her personal life.  But in many ways, her lifelong silence about her sexual orientation seems fitting. In the face of her ambition, Ride was never one to submit to rigid categorizations. She was a woman and she was gay,  but first and foremost, she was an astronaut.

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