How Sally Ride Was Even Tougher Than Ripley in Alien

Sally Ride on board the challenger
Sally Ride on board the challenger NASA

If you think battling evil in the bowels of a defunct space freighter is hard, try being the closeted, often-patronized poster child for womankind’s capacity to compete in a notoriously male-dominated field.

Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, died yesterday after an extended battle with pancreatic cancer. Ride rode the Space Shuttle Challenger as it launched from the Kennedy Space Center, and spent 147-hours in space that first flight. Smithsonian summarizes her other space achievements here:

After serving on the crew of Challenger STS-7, she flew on a second mission, STS 41-G, in 1984. Ultimately, Ride became the only person to serve on the investigation committees of both the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia accidents, in 1986 and 2003.

But it wasn’t easy. Women still weren’t taken seriously as scientists, and certainly not as astronauts. The New York Times describes some of the challenges Ride faced:

The CBS News reporter Diane Sawyer asked her to demonstrate a newly installed privacy curtain around the shuttle’s toilet. On “The Tonight Show,” Johnny Carson joked that the shuttle flight would be delayed because Dr. Ride had to find a purse to match her shoes.

At a NASA news conference, Dr. Ride said: “It’s too bad this is such a big deal. It’s too bad our society isn’t further along.”

And if being one of the first female astronauts wasn’t enough of a challenge, Ride had her own personal battle as well, one that wasn’t revealed until her obituary came out yesterday. The Huffington Post reports:

In what is perhaps a stellar example of the new trend in coming out quietly, Sally Ride, the first American woman to rocket into outer space, came out as a lesbian in her obituary, a day after her tragic death due to pancreatic cancer. She now makes history not only as the first American woman in space, aboard the space shuttle Challenger, but as the first openly gay person to fly in space as well.

The Smithsonian featured Ride as a part of their “35 Who Made a Difference” series. Ride inspired a whole generation of young women to pursue careers in science. The Smithsonian wrote:

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.”

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