Yesterday, Sally Ride, the first female US astronaut, and third woman in space overall, died after a long fight against pancreatic cancer.
Sally Ride was not the first woman in space, and she was not even the second woman in space. Valentina Tereshka was trained in a crash course (she was a parachuter but not a pilot) and her flight was considered more of a stunt than anything else – mind you this was the era of public space stunts by the superpowers – but the lack of training and the superficial nature of the her flight was indicative of the ‘propaganda over progress’ nature of USSR space flights that led to them to fall behind the US program. Svetlana Savitskaya was a more fully trained astronaut, but her training had started in 1980, wheras Sally Ride had been part of NASA’s astronaut program since 1978.
Sally Ride faced a higher level of scrutiny from the media due to her gender. While NASA was well past the age of ‘male, clean-cut types only’, there was still a degree of chauvinism displayed. Sally Ride was asked once if she cried when things went wrong, some wondered if the space flight would damage her reproductive organs, some less-than-stellar experts claimed her hair (done in an 80’s style perm) would destroy everything inside the shuttle, and the question of how she would go to the bathroom in the shuttle was asked- a lot. Although to be fair ‘how do astronauts go to the bathroom in space’ is the most commonly asked question of the astronaut program, male or female. Ride answered most questions skillfully,but pointed out the double-standard by asking “how come Rick (Hauck) doesn’t get these questions?”, and just outright not answering a couple of others.
Ride flew twice on the Space Shuttle, on flights STS-7 and STS-41-G. She also acted as the ground-based Capsule Commander for the 2nd and 3rd Shuttle flights. When disaster struck the Challenger in 1986 she was on the investigation team. Even though she left NASA in 1987, she was asked back to help the accident investigation of the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster.
Once Ride left NASA, she continued to keep most of her life private while working for private companies. She acted as an inspiration to young girls in science but never pressed the issue very far – accepting her duty as a role model. But she considered herself a scientists & astronaut, not a celebrity. She rarely exploited her fame – (a commercial for Office Depot was about it).
Sally Ride was 61.