Tuesday, July 24, 2012

First American Woman in Space; Remembering Sally Ride

Sally Ride, 1984
I can't remember a time I didn't know about Sally Ride.  I think every woman can remember a moment growing up when they realized there were careers they wanted to have but "couldn't" because of their gender.  For me, I wanted to be a magician (I was 8) but looked around and saw that girls like me were the "lovely assistants" and never the lead so I stopped seeing that as something I could do.  But thanks to Dr. Ride, when a young girl has a dream of being an astronaut they will never have a moment like that.  Dr. Ride passed away yesterday after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer.  She was an amazing astronaut, worked tirelessly to encourage girls to love science and was an inspiration to many generations of women.

There is little that I can say about Dr. Ride that has not been said in one of the many obituaries, so instead of trying to add to that, I thought I would take this space to talk about what she has done to inspire students to pursue science and how she has inspired me in particular.  I never met her in person though I had the chance twice and I will forever regret not being able to shake her hand and say 'thanks.'

When I read about Dr. Ride in school she seem to buck every stereotype I could think of.  Boys did science and if you liked science you couldn't also like to read books unless they were Science Fiction.  I, unfortunately, liked both science and reading.  So did she.  She graduated from Stanford with a double major in English and Physics.  This is certainly an odd combination and I don't know many academic advisors that would encourage it.  Students majoring in a science are often discouraged from even taking humanities classes let alone double majoring.  Many would argue, however, that taking such classes can make you a better scientist.  There are several role models that I have looked up to in my life, many of them scientists, many of them strong women in all professions, but Dr. Ride was one that successfully crossed the bridge between liberal arts and science.  I very much wish others would follow her lead.  She showed all of us that you don't have to have a single focus, broadening your mind can only be a benefit.

Often times when talking about women in traditionally male professions we focus on their gender and less on their contributions in their field.  I don't want to do that here.  She did extensive research in physics including work in both astrophysics and the free electron laser.  After retiring from NASA she became a physics professor at Stanford.  While at NASA helped design the shuttle's robotic arm.  She was the first person to use it to retrieve a satellite.  That's pretty awesome no matter what your gender.  She was the only person, male or female, to sit on the investigation committees for both the Challenger and the Columbia shuttle accidents.   She put up with reporters asking her if she wept on the job and jokes about her delaying the shuttle launch due to finding a purse to match her shoes.  But her accomplishments in her field are impressive, gender aside.

Dr. Ride was dedicated to encouraging young people, particularly girls, to learn science.  Her company, Sally Ride Science, publishes books, runs science festivals and organizes professional development classes for teachers among other programs.  She was an extremely private person and the fact that she was willing to start a company such as this shows her dedication to the cause.   Sally Ride Science has become a leading resource for science teachers, particularly middle grade science teachers. She chose to target this age because that is where most girls lose interest in science.  Giving teachers the resources to keep girls engaged is invaluable.

While reading through the many articles posted about Dr. Ride today, this quote from the New York Times stood out as one of my favorites.  I feel like it sums up why I have always looked up to her and seen her as such a hero.  She wanted to do what she wanted to do and she wanted to do it well.  Matching purse and shoes be damned.

"Dr. Ride told interviewers that what drove her was not the desire to become famous or to make history as the first woman in space. All she wanted to do was fly, she said, to soar into space, float around weightless inside the shuttle, look out at the heavens and gaze back at Earth. In photographs of her afloat in the spaceship, she was grinning, as if she had at long last reached the place she was meant to be."

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