BookBin2015: Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space


I’m doing things a bit backward. I had hoped to finish posting the rest of my reads from the end of last year. That’s just not happening right now. Too much “other” going on at the moment. And, of course, I’ve got several books from this year that I should be posting first…but this seemed like the right place to start, on the right day.

See, yesterday would have been Dr. Sally Ride’s 64th birthday, had cancer not had different plans for her. It seemed only right, then, to make a special effort to finish Lynn Sherr’s recently released biography on Dr. Ride, very aptly and originally named Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space.

Of course, as I commented elsewhere, when you have the distinction of having been the first American woman in space, there really isn’t a more appropriate or better title than that for your biography.

As I already stated, I finished reading this book last night. I couldn’t stop thinking about it—or aching from it—for about an hour afterward. The final few chapters are quite difficult to get through, not just because they touch upon Dr. Ride’s decline and death from pancreatic cancer, but also because they go into (slightly) more detail about the relationship she kept private for nearly 30 years.

I know many people within the LGBTQ community were angry with Dr. Ride for hiding the fact that she was gay, only allowing the news to be released in her obituary. Some have even gone so far as to label her a traitor to the fight for gay rights. IMHO, anger is deserved but misplaced. If you want to be angry, be angry with the culture that prevailed at the time Dr. Ride decided to enter NASA and become an astronaut. Be angry at the militaristic conservatism of a former boys’ club that in no way would have tolerated or even accepted an openly gay person among their astronaut corp. This was the agency that, as late as the early 1990s, tried to convince on-staff medical providers to add homosexuality to a list of disorders that would disqualify astronaut candidates.

But anger at Dr. Ride?

We hear people talk all the time about sacrifice to get what they want. We hear it from athletes. We hear it from politicians. We hear it from celebrities. Sally Ride sacrificed (and was lucky to have a partner willing to bear the sacrifice with her). She sacrificed herself to what she saw as a greater purpose—representing and supporting NASA, serving the myriad students she taught and inspired (many of whom ended up working for the space agency she so clearly felt devoted to), encouraging and educating young girls in the pursuit of STEM goals. She sacrificed by compartmentalizing her life so thoroughly that not even close lifelong friends knew of her relationship with Tam O’Shaughnessy. Suspected. But never knew. Dr. Ride was a woman tightly protective of her privacy and fiercely focused on her goals.

Toward the end, was this because she still believed that such information would be damning? Did she believe that corporate sponsors and conservative parents would refuse the help of an organization run by two lesbians (something not that difficult to imagine as a legitimate fear back then when even today we have businesses refusing to serve gay patrons)? Or was it simply that she didn’t know how to let go of the control that she had kept over everything her entire life? It’s all speculation at this point, now, as author Lynn Sherr duly notes. Sherr, by the way, was friends with Dr. Ride, having spent a large portion of her career covering NASA, and Dr. Ride’s family and partner asked her to write this book.

Whatever her reasons, Dr. Ride did what she felt was necessary, and she made our world that much better because of it. She was the first American woman into space because she was the best choice for the job, period. She continued to support NASA throughout the rest of her life, even when it meant serving on the investigative commissions of both shuttle accidents, Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. She established Sally Ride Science as a way of encouraging young girls to pursue their dreams all the way to the stars, just as she had. She saw the danger that loomed ahead for this country as we fell further and further behind in the global STEM rankings. She also saw the danger of ignoring the fragility of our ecosystem and she constantly and consistently delivered the message that we needed to be more aware of our impact on this world because it’s the only home we have.

She was a remarkable human being who just happened to be a woman, who just happened to be gay. Hers was a life that deserves celebration, if not also a soupçon of sadness at the possibility that she lived a life incomplete because she felt it had to be so.

Final Verdict: I actually first started reading this as a library checkout, but stopped when I realized that I was going to buy it for myself. It will be going on my autobiography/biography shelf, right next to another book I recently read all about another woman who was first on her own trek to the stars.

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