To celebrate LGBT History Month, 2013, Polari is publishing a daily series of LGBT Heroes, selected by the magazine’s team of writers and special contributors.
Sally Ride – Physicist, Astronaut, Author
by Christopher Bryant
In his pioneering essay ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History,’ Frederick Jackson Turner described the Western border of the expanding United States in the 19th century as the great realm of possibility, an imaginative space in which social developments “has been continually beginning over again”. The two great frontiers of 20th century science turned out to be outer space, the realm of the astronaut, and inner space, the realm of the physicist. Sally Ride trained as a physicist, and graduated with a PhD from Stanford University. In 1978 she joined NASA after responding to a newspaper ad calling for applicants to the space program. There were 8000 write-ins. In 1983, at the age of 32, she became the first American woman to enter into low Earth orbit.
Ride was intensely private. It was only upon her death in 2012 that it was made known that the chief operating officer and executive vice president of Sally Ride Science, Tam O’Shaughnessy, had been her partner for 27 years. The two women co-authored five science books for children, and were committed educators.
Sally Ride Science was founded in 2001, with the aim of developing science, technology, engineering and maths education for elementary and middle school students. Two elementary schools in the United States have in fact been named in her honour: Sally K. Ride Elementary School in The Woodlands, Texas; and Sally K. Ride Elementary School in Germantown, Maryland.
In 1983, the space program was, a male domain, and overwrought with frontier imagery and masculine hyperbole. “This is the hero factory,” began a 1983 article in People, which reported on Ride’s first press conference at NASA:
No other astronaut was ever asked questions like these: Will the flight affect your reproductive organs? The answer, delivered with some asperity: “There’s no evidence of that.” Do you weep when things go wrong on the job? Retort: “How come nobody ever asks Rick those questions?” Will you become a mother? First an attempt at evasion, then a firm smile: “You notice I’m not answering.” In an hour of interrogation that is by turns intelligent, inane and almost insulting, Ride remains calm, unrattled and as laconic as the lean, tough fighter jockeys who surround her. “It may be too bad that our society isn’t further along and that this is such a big deal,” she reflects.
At the time she was married to fellow astronaut Steven Hawley. It’s perhaps no wonder she kept her relationship with Tam, which began in 1985, private, if this is the sort of questioning to which she was submitted.
Ride was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2011, died on July 23, 2012, at the age 61. In April 2013, the Space Foundation will award its highest honour, the General James E. Hill Lifetime Space Achievement Award, to Sally Ride and Neil Armstrong. To this day, the inspirational, brilliant Ride remains the youngest American astronaut to be launched into space. Her work pushed the boundaries of the frontier, which Ralph Waldo Emerson described in the 1844 essay ‘The Young American’, “the appointed remedy for whatever is fantastic or false in our country”. That is what makes her a hero.