Tuesday 15 January 2013

A Ride Out In Space

One of the saddest events last year was the passing of Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space, and the first and only lgbt astronaut. To many people her sexuality was not really known as Sally kept it private among her close family and friends. It was only after her death that her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy, decided to reveal it to the rest the world.

Sally’s great-grandfather, William Ride, came from Derbyshire, from a village only about 20 miles from where I live (she also has Welsh and royal blood through her grandmother). William emigrated to America, where he married, had a family and settled in California.

The road to Sally’s pioneering role as the first female NASA astronaut began at school where her interest in science led to her to go on and study astrophysics while studying for her PhD at Stanford University.

Her involvement with NASA began in 1978. In the remarkably short time of 5 years Sally became only the 3rd female astronaut in history aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. A year later she was on Challenger again, and was preparing for a third trip when in 1985 the Challenger shuttle exploded on lift-off killing all on board.

Sally was appointed to the presidential commission which investigated the accident, a duty she was recalled to perform again after the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster – the only person to serve on both commissions. Her days as an astronaut were over, but she was appointed to NASA HQ in Washington DC and founded it’s Office of Exploration.

Away from work Sally Ride kept her personal life private. She married fellow astronaut Steve Hawley in 1982. By 1985 she was in a relationship with an old friend from her teenage tennis-playing years, Tam O’Shaughnessy (both held national tennis rankings in the late 1960s). Sally and Steve Hawley divorced in 1987.

With her partner Tam and three other associates Sally founded Sally Ride Science in 2001. This is an organisation which concentrates on science education in schools, with particular encouragement to girls to take up science subjects. Sally also co-wrote 5 educational books for children based on astronomy. In 2011 NASA launched 2 space probes to the Moon in order to map it’s gravitational field. Sally Ride Science gained permission from NASA to make images from the mission available to all American schools. When the mission came to end just before the New Year NASA decided to crash-land the probes into a Moon crater. Because of her contribution to space education and in memory of her achievements the crash site has been named Sally Ride by NASA. Asteroid number 4763 had already been named after her. NASA is planning several celebrations of her life.

Sally Ride received many awards from science and astronomy organisations for her contribution to space exploration and has been inducted into the US National Women’s Hall of Fame. Two elementary schools have also been named after her.

Sally’s legacy is difficult to determine. Her historical place as the first American woman in space will always be the first reason why she is remembered, but her educational work with schools will surely have inspired young Americans to take up science, even inspired them to follow in her footsteps and become astronauts.

Her place in lgbt history as the first, and so far only, lgbt astronaut is equally assured. Whether this will inspire other lgbt astronauts to come out will remain to be seen.

At the moment perhaps it is Sally’s work with NASA’s Office of Exploration, her leadership of NASA’s first strategic planning effort, and as a member of the Review of US Human Space Flight Plan Committee, which may be most important in the years to come as we begin to think about human space travel again and head back to the Moon – or even beyond.

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