On July 23, America lost a pioneer. Sally Ride served as a role model – for girls and women, certainly, but also for anyone interested in space – and her contributions to the American space program will ensure that her legacy is one of continuing inspiration.
Sally became the first American woman in space in 1983 when she was chosen to be a mission specialist aboard the shuttle Challenger. I had the pleasure of interviewing Sally for my book, American Heroines, in which I profiled women who paved the way in a number of fields — from aviation to medicine to science. One of the questions I asked was what trait she thought was most important for success. She surprised me by saying that it was the ability to work with other people. I had thought she might say “perseverance” – something often cited by women breaking into male-dominated professions. But for her, it was about the demands of the field: as a physicist, it was essential for collaboration, and as an astronaut, the close quarters and unique requirements of the job made it critical.
Her answer should not be construed as deference to male colleagues, or a willingness to bend to others’ demands. Sally Ride was strong-willed – so much so that her mother once said it was the reason she abandoned earlier dreams of a career in tennis: “it offended her that the ball wouldn’t go just where she wanted.” No, it was a scientist’s understanding of the demands of the job.
I will always remember how Sally displayed that same calm ability to get along when she handled questions about her gender from the press, and remarks from a few coworkers, with dignity and grace.
That measure of professionalism is what sets trailblazers apart. Sally was part of the first class of women to be accepted into the space program, but it is important to remember she was selected for her accomplishments, not for her gender.
She attended Stanford and earned bachelor’s degrees in physics and English, a master’s in physics and a Ph.D. in astrophysics. While training as an astronaut, she also worked as a NASA physicist and engineer, and helped develop a robotic arm used on the space shuttle to retrieve satellites.
After her retirement from the program, President Reagan appointed her to serve on the panel investigating the tragic loss of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, and she reprised that role for a similar panel in 2003.
I have always believed that America’s investment in science, technology, engineering and medicine – the STEM disciplines – is crucial to our success. I have spent my career ensuring America never cedes its leadership in innovation and technology advances. I was thrilled when Sally served on the Augustine Committee on the future of human spaceflight in 2009, which helped inform the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.
It is also critical to promote STEM education, to ensure that we train new generations of scientists. Sally Ride shared that belief, and dedicated much of her career to pursuing that goal. In 2001, she founded a company that developed programs, materials and training for science classes and sponsored science camps and classes designed to bring more girls into a field where – though we have made progress – they are still underrepresented.
In researching my book and conducting the interviews, I found that in every field, the first women to break through laid the groundwork, creating a foundation for subsequent generations to build on.
It is true that each generation of female pioneers owes something to those who have come before – that we have “stood on the shoulders of giants” as the saying goes. Sally Ride stood just 5’5” tall, but she was a giant.
Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican, is the senior U.S. senator from Texas.