‘Sally Ride’: America’s pioneering woman in space
Lynn Sherr’s biography, “Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space,” tells the story of the space pioneer. Sherr discusses her book Tuesday, July 22, at Town Hall Seattle.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 22, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5 at townhallseattle.org and at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m. For more information, call the University Book Store at 206-634-3400.
It’s sometimes hard to remember that Sally Ride, born in 1951, faced many obstacles, yet pioneered great changes for women. As Lynn Sherr, an ABC News reporter who covered NASA’s space-shuttle program from 1981-1986 writes in her interesting new biography, “Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space” (Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $28), not only was Ride America’s first woman in space, ending “an all-male cowboy culture” of astronauts, but she also earned a doctorate in physics and was the first woman “CapCom” (capsule communicator) on a shuttle mission. She served as flight engineer on the seventh shuttle mission, taught at universities, wrote children’s books, started her own business, was a board member of several major companies, and became the only person to serve on government commissions that examined both the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters.
In almost everything she did, Sherr states, Ride excelled. She grew up in Southern California, where her academic achievements and talent for tennis earned a partial scholarship to the private Westlake School for Girls and, later, a full scholarship at Swarthmore College. An “early thwarted career ambition,” however, was Ride’s “personal obsession” with becoming shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Her mother would eventually say it was the “only thing she told Sally that she could not do simply because she was a girl.”
Those who knew Ride agreed she was an introvert, cool under pressure, someone with a lot of pride who worked “very hard to avoid appearing stupid.” This need to fit seamlessly into social expectations of the times and the strict NASA culture led her to keep a secret for decades: although she dated men and even married, her longest and most rewarding relationship was with another woman, Tam O’Shaughnessy. Sherr explains that she was approached about writing this book simply to finally answer the question: who was the real Sally Ride?
By the 1970s, NASA was being pressured to add scientists, women and minorities. Not everyone had to be a white, male fighter pilot. That Ride had the right stuff for her professional life comes across well in Sherr’s telling, which praises Ride without overdoing it. And although Ride hadn’t grown up wanting to be an astronaut — a headline in The Stanford Daily put the idea into her head — Ride negotiated a dauntingly difficult path with relative ease.
The book is less revealing about Ride’s private life. Sherr repeatedly makes the point that Ride was good at compartmentalizing. Adopting the stoic NASA front, she learned to protect friends, family and herself from media pressures and countless requests for appearances.
Particularly after her first shuttle flight, she would remark, “Everybody wanted a piece of me.” She declined to be on “Dancing with the Stars.” Her former husband, Steve Hawley, said she sometimes felt “used.” In 1981, when her friend, tennis pro Billy Jean King, underwent horrible recriminations after it became known she was gay, Ride realized her future might be in jeopardy, too.
When Ride retired from NASA, she returned to Stanford with a science fellowship, then accepted a full professorship at UC San Diego. She bought a town house in La Jolla and lived there with O’Shaughnessy, carefully keeping up appearances until her death from pancreatic cancer in 2012. “She taught us,” Sherr writes, “that our home planet is as exotic as any distant point in the cosmos, that you can fly high without ever leaving Earth.”