Prior to her becoming the first American woman in space, a journalist asked Sally Ride if she worried that her mission may hurt her reproductive organs. That’s the kind of thing that Ride had to overcome in her day-to-day life after she joined NASA in 1978 while she was a student at Stanford. After she left the agency, Ride went on to promote science among students and became one of the most respected people in American life. She passed away in July 2012 after suffering from pancreatic cancer. The May 26th Google Doodle honors Ride on what would have been her 64th birthday.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. She Grew Up in a Family of Strict Presbyterians
She was born and raised in Los Angeles. Her parents were both elders of the local Presbyterian church, where her sister, Karen, is still a minister. Her mother, Carol, worked as a counsellor at a woman’s prison while her father, Dale, was political science professor at Santa Monica College. Ride was a scholarship student at the Harvard-Westlake High School and was admitted to Stanford where she got a master’s and Ph.D in physics.
2. She Beat Out 8,000 Other People to Become NASA’s First Female Astronaut
According to a blog post from her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, Ride randomly spotted an advertisement for astronauts from NASA in the Stanford campus newspaper in 1977. She “didn’t hesitate to send in her application, and became one of six women selected as part of the new crop of astronaut candidates,” says O’Shaughnessy. Ride’s partner also says that it was Ride’s missions to space that enlightened her as to how fragile our planet is. Ride flew two missions into the final frontier on board the Challenger, the first, in 1983, made her the first American woman in space.
3. It Was Only After Her Death That She Was Outed as a Lesbian, Just Like Her Sister
During her life, Ride was guarded about her privacy. In 1982, she married fellow astronaut Steven Hawley. The couple was divorced in 1987. It was only after her death, that Ride’s partner Tam O’Shaughnessy outed the couple. They got together in 1985 and remained parnters until Ride’s death from cancer in 2012. In light of Ride’s awakening about the environment, she and O’Shaughnessy wrote children’s books together about climate change and other important issues. Since Ride passed, O’Shaughnessy became the CEO of the Board of Sally Ride Science. Ride’s sister, Karen, is also a lesbian and is a well-known campaigner for same-sex marriage in California.
4. She Was a Nationally Ranked Tennis Player in Her College Years
During Ride’s youth, despite her obvious aptitude for science, she also excelled at sports, notably football and especially tennis. In O’Shaughnessy’s blog post, it’s written that Ride could have become a professional player. That’s how the couple met, while both playing youth tennis. The Post Game reports that Billie Jean King encouraged Ride to become a pro. While tennis training in Philadelphia, she won the Eastern Intercollegiate Women’s Tennis Championships two years in a row. Her mother, Carol, said about Ride’s decision to quit tennis “Sally simply couldn’t make the ball go just where she wanted it to. And Sally wouldn’t settle or anything short of excellence in herself.” Even after she quit tennis, Ride ran five miles a day and played rugby to keep in shape.
5. Ride Helped Lead the Investigations Into the 1986 Challenger Disaster
She had helped to lead the two investigations into the Challenger disaster in 1986 and the Columbia disaster in 2003. Ride had flown both of her missions on the Challenger. After serving in the Challenger investigation, she moved to work for NASA in D.C. where she authored a paper “NASA Leadership and America’s Future in Space.” Ride later founded NASA’s Office of Exploration. According to O’Shaughnessy, Ride also tried to encourage space exploration and science among female students. Ride’s research noted that girl’s were losing interest in science in their teenage years, something she blamed the media for. Ride said about it:
Everywhere I go I meet girls and boys who want to be astronauts and explore space, or they love the ocean and want to be oceanographers, or they love animals and want to be zoologists, or they love designing things and want to be engineers. I want to see those same stars in their eyes in 10 years and know they are on their way!