I was shocked to hear about the death of Sally Ride yesterday. Her name had been absent from the news for years (mostly of her own choosing), so we were all unaware she was battling cancer, but there was never a moment of “who?” when her death was announced. I’d guess most women my age recognized the name immediately, without the need to explain who she was. For me, I felt a small part of my childhood quietly pass on as I processed the news. Sally Ride. 61 years old. Gone.
In the early 80′s, space shuttle launches were a big deal. Our elementary school would file into the school library, packed in tight rows around the single A/V cart with the heavy TV perched on top, just to watch a space shuttle launch. It was a magical sight to watch the rockets fire and carry that black and white glider into space.
Seeing the first grainy photos and video of Sally Ride in space sent a message to girls everywhere that times were changing. We really could be ANYTHING we wanted to be. The space program was one of the most prominent achievements of science and engineering, and here was a woman proving that she could be a pioneer in that field just as well as any man.
This little girl saw Sally Ride and dreamed for the stars. She was my hero. In a time when girls still weren’t expected to do as well as boys in science, she inspired me to keep learning and exploring. Math and science were my best subjects, and knowing that they could possibly lead me to be an astronaut one day only strengthened my efforts. I wanted to be like Sally.
Even when the Challenger exploded, I remained committed. Sally was there in front of the media, reminding us that all progress carries risk, and while we mourned the loss of the Challenger crew we couldn’t let the tragedy keep us from moving forward. We were stronger than our fear and wouldn’t let their loss be for nothing. We would continue on.
It was because of Sally Ride that I went to Space Camp in seventh grade. (Well, Space Academy since I was too old for Space Camp by that point.) There were still a greater percentage of boys than girls at the Huntsville, Alabama facility, but there were girls. Girls who also saw Sally Ride become the first woman in space and were inspired to follow their own dreams of sitting in a space shuttle. It’s unlikely that many went on to become astronauts, but how many would then pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, or math? I’m betting Sally’s influence led to a huge increase for women in these fields.
And while I never did become an astronaut, Sally Ride inspired a love of science for me and helped me believe I could do anything I put my mind to. I never felt limited by my gender when it came to career choices. I could aim for the stars.
I still have a love for science, and I pulled both of my daughters close to me while watching a shuttle launch (oh, I hope they will remember!), full of emotion as I told them that they could someday see the world far below them like the astronauts do. Nothing is out of their reach if they have the desire to go after it.
Rest in peace, Sally. You were my hero and I hope your legacy will continue to inspire other girls to aim for the stars.