Tuesday, July 24, 2012

R.I.P., Sally Ride

Sally Ride.

Twenty–nine years ago, it seemed like the ideal name for America's first woman in space. Well, it seemed that way to me, anyway.

And I didn't even realize it had already been immortalized in a song, "Mustang Sally."
"All you want to do is ride around Sally, ride, Sally, ride.
All you want to do is ride around Sally, ride, Sally, ride.
All you want to do is ride around Sally, ride, Sally, ride."

(I'll admit, it doesn't seem like much without the music.)

She joined NASA in 1978 and, in 1983, she rode on the space shuttle Challenger, becoming America's first woman in space.

She wasn't the first woman of any nationality to travel in space. That distinction belonged to Valentina Tereshkova of Russia, who flew in space 20 years before Ride.

But she was a pioneer — an American pioneer.

It would be a perfect narrative, I suppose, if it could be demonstrated that Ride's parents named her after the song. But that isn't possible. Ride was born in 1951. The song was first recorded in the mid–1960s.

Ironically, Ride's historic trip into space came almost 20 years to the day after Tereshkova's.

And Tereshkova and Ride had something else in common. As young adults, neither woman seemed destined for space travel. Tereshkova worked in a factory; Ride was an aspiring tennis player.

But Tereshkova was recruited for the Soviet Union's space program. Ride was among thousands of people who answered an advertisement seeking applicants for NASA.

So their groundbreaking stories, while similar, were not identical.

In fact, there were times back in the 1980s when I thought Ride's achievement was overshadowed by other, higher–profile advances for females — almost two years before Ride went into space, Sandra Day O'Connor became the first female Supreme Court justice. And the year after her trip into space, Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman to be on a major party's national ticket as Walter Mondale's running mate.

There are certain ironies connected with Ride's death at this particular time. Ride died of pancreatic cancer yesterday at the age of 61.

For one thing, it is ironic that she should die less than a year before the 30th anniversary of her first space trip. What a tragedy it is that she will not be here for that.

It is also ironic that Ride's death should coincide with the renewed search for the wreckage of Amelia Earhart's plane. That search, incidentally, ended recently with more new questions than answers.

Ride's death came the day before the 115th anniversary of Earhart's birth. Another irony. Both women were pioneers in aviation.

It is even more ironic, I think, that Ride's death and the search for Earhart's plane should happen at a time when the national conversation has been centered on Barack Obama's remark about how entrepreneurs did not build their businesses alone.

No man is an island, the president and his supporters contend.

But, if anything, Ride and Earhart did the things they did in spite of the resistance they encountered. It was probably more pronounced in Earhart's day because few women attempted to succeed in any field that was regarded as the domain of men — but little had really changed in 50 years.

I have a vivid memory of the men in the central Arkansas community where I was working at the time dismissing Ride's accomplishment and earnestly wondering why she would want to do what men had been doing since the dawn of America's space program.

So I know that misogynistic attitudes were alive and well when Ride flew in space.

It may not fit with the president's election–year narrative, but that entrepreneurial, risk–taking spirit isn't limited to the business world.

And, while Ride got her opportunity with the help she received along the way, as we all do, her success as an astronaut was entirely her own doing.

Rest in peace, Sally Ride.

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