I went to Space Camp twice when I was a kid.
Yep. Twice. I was suuuuper popular and had lots of friends. (Er. Nope.)
The first time I went, I was nine years old and going through a phase where I shaved the back of my head and only wore denim overalls. The camp was a week long and we spent most of it preparing for a simulated mission at the end of camp. I applied and was chosen to pilot our space shuttle, a very important post. I remember our team of tiny “astronauts” were called Neptune 1. I remember sitting in the cockpit eagerly awaiting the beginning of the mission, hands on the controls. I remember being happy. The second time I went, I used the money from my bat mitzvah (you know, what most girls that age used to buy silver Tiffany bracelets) to upgrade to Space Academy in Huntsville, AL. I had no sense that this was in any way weird for a tween girl.
For a long time, I wanted to be an astronaut. After a fear of flying set in, that dream morphed into wanting to work in Mission Control which then morphed into something like, “Hey, weed is fun and I hate science and math blah blah blah beatniks, Hunter S. Thompson. Writing and journalism are the one true religion.” It took me until after college to rediscover my love for science and space. (Though it never truly left. I have managed to floor random liberal arts majors by dropping bombs during Trivial Pursuit. First woman in space? Valentina Tereshkova. What are Chinese astronauts called? Taikonauts. Boom. Suck it.)
Yesterday, the first American woman in space, Sally Ride, passed away from cancer. She was 61. She’d only had cancer for less than two years. Like most of the public, I didn’t even know she was sick.
First and foremost, Sally Ride was a legend and a badass. She is reminder that more young women need to be encouraged to go into math and science and fostered to greatness by the women already there. There weren’t a lot of other little girls at Space Camp, either time I attended. It’s cheesy to say that women need to help other women, or that there should be some sort of obligation there between women in the math and science fields, but it’s true. There were also no female science teachers at my high school. I’ve written before about why I didn’t pursue a career with NASA. It’s a little more complicated. Probably, this lack of visibility in those fields had nothing to do with me deciding to become a writer over an astronaut — but maybe one existing would have helped steer me back in that direction.
So first, I hope we use a celebration of Sally Ride’s life to talk about getting more young girls into science. It’s partly cyclical. It comes from more female role models in those fields for the next generation to look up to. If they see women succeeding in astronomy or engineering or biomedicine, then it’s more realistic for them to imagine themselves working in science and math when they grow up. That part’s easier said than done. It’s a hard and nuanced question that I’ll readily admit I don’t have clear answers for. Perhaps it involves idolizing women like Ride over say, current idols like Bella Swan or Kim Kardashian — but even that makes me feel like one of the ladies on The View, reactionary and without an action plan. Again, easier said than done. Though the love for her accomplishments and life surrounding Ride’s passing is encouraging.
On top of that, Sally Ride’s death has brought forth another more unexpected talking point. For those that haven’t heard, one of the bigger stories surrounding her passing is her decision to come out publicly for the first time in her obituary. In a single, simple line at the end, Ride is said to be survived by “Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years.” That was it. No big magazine cover. No revelation on Oprah. No scandal. No controversy. No politics. Just love.
What does it mean to come out in your obituary? Part of me wonders why she didn’t say anything during her lifetime — why, if as her sister (awesomely named “Bear Ride”) puts it, she wanted to bring comfort to LGBTQ young people, didn’t she speak up when she was alive? But the other part knows why. Because why should it matter? Because she was the first American woman in space and still half the country thinks she shouldn’t be allowed equal rights with heterosexual people. It’s madness.
Sally Ride never set out to be a celebrity. She only set out to explore space. It’s amazing how much you want to keep your private life to yourself, to distance your personal details from your professional accomplishments, of which Ride had many.
In college, my friends and I held an online bracket, voting for the “Best Female Badass of All Time.” Eleanor Roosevelt eventually won, I think, but Sally Ride easily made the top five. She was a pioneer and a boss. As the Huffington Post said so succinctly, in the wake of the Boy Scouts ban on gay kids and Chic-Fil-A pouring money into anti-gay institutions, “This is what a lesbian looks like.” But more than that, this is what an American hero looks like. Can anyone deny that?
Sally Ride is a hero of mine and I am sad about her untimely passing after battling illness. But now, because of her obit, she’s also a hero for a different reason. RIP Sally Ride. You had all the right stuff.