Editor's Note, July 23, 2012: Sally Ride died today at the age of 61 after a long battle with cancer. In 2009, we featured Ride as part of our "35 Who Made a Difference" package.
Sally Ride, the nation's first woman astronaut, no longer flies for NASA, but she has embarked on a mission into territory that is just as mysterious and controversial, and is much closer to home: making sure that girls get to share in the adventure that is science.
This is not an easy task in an age when the president of Harvard, no less, hypothesizes that girls can't cut it in science because they lack the inherent ability. In truth, though, Dr. Ride, who earned her doctorate in physics, thinks that Dr. Lawrence Summers' January 2005 statement inadvertently helped more than harmed her cause. "He probably couldn't have planned it better," she said at her headquarters in San Diego, smiling with obvious satisfaction. "He really touched a nerve."
Summers' suggestion implied a troubling blindness. After all, many of the country's top mathematicians, engineers, astronomers and physicists are women—which is quite an achievement considering that until the latter part of the past century, many women were barred from earning advanced degrees in such fields. It's even more of an achievement given that girls who burn to explore still face speed bumps and stop signs all along the road—from grade school to academia.
Ride sees it all the time. When she talks to groups of elementary school students, as many girls as boys say they want to be astronauts. When she speaks to college physics classes, the girls have gone. "What happened to those fourth-grade girls?" she asks.
She gets the answers when she talks with women who wanted to be astronomers or archaeologists, but were told that they were dumb in math—in the third grade! Or were excluded from the engineering club in high school. Years later, when these women find out they'd missed their chance to take part in the quest to understand their universe, it really hits home. "Here's the president of Harvard who simply doesn't understand the impact [that attitude] has had on my life!" Ride says. "It's personal. That's why he got such an outpouring."
Even today, Ride says, "you see all these boys who get C's in math and say, "I'm going to be an engineer!' And all these girls who get A's in math and say, 'I'm not good enough.'"
Exploring the mysteries of our ever-fantastical universe—whether it's at the level of a cell, a molecule, or the whole amazing shebang—is not simply a sideline or vocation; it's at the soul of human experience. "It's what people do!" Ride says; she considers exploring as central to life as breathing. And so she's spent the past five years creating the Sally Ride Science Club, science festivals, summer camps, newsletters, career guides, Web site and books—all under the umbrella of her company, Sally Ride Science. She doesn't even mind being a "brand"—which is curious when you consider that even after she blasted through NASA's glass ceiling with a 1983 flight on the Challenger, she didn't let anyone write an authorized biography because she didn't feel she'd done enough. Celebrating her credentials "has a different feel to it when it has a purpose beyond making yourself famous."
That purpose is to smooth the bumps, especially for the middle school girls who seem to be the most vulnerable. Her message is as deceptively simple as it is true: hey girls, it's your universe too. Science isn't a guy thing. Not only can you be a girl, you can be a mom, wear makeup, dance the samba, serial shop, and still be a scientist.
"It's amazing that people can make a career out of asking questions," she says. "Everyone wants to be part of the quest for understanding."