Sally Ride Science: You’re Going To Have To Fight For It

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Firsts are important. They break the barrier and open the door for others. They give us cause to celebrate. They set a point in time when progress was made. In 1961 Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin from the Soviet Union became the first person to go into space. Later that same year Alan Shepard, Jr. became the first American in space. Two years later in 1963 Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. And twenty years later, the year I was born, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. 

On June 18, 1983 Sally Ride flew in the space shuttle Challenger. She was 32 years old. Her astronautic career began after she responded to a NASA advertisement on Stanford’s campus to recruit women into their space program. She was a PhD candidate at the time. She was accepted into the NASA program and became one of the first 6 female NASA astronauts. 

Pictured are the first 6 female astronauts for NASA, Sally Ride is far right.

Pictured are the first 6 female astronauts for NASA, Sally Ride is far right.

In 1986, disaster hit the space exploration community and United States as a whole. The space shuttle Challenger, the orbiter that Sally Ride had taken her first space trip in, exploded just after launch. The explosion killed the seven astronauts on board. Ride was one of the investigators into the Challenger disaster. In 2003 another space tragedy hit when the shuttle Columbia disintegrated on reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, again killing the seven astronauts aboard. Ride investigated this event as well, becoming the only person to have investigated both fatal accidents. 

Her expertise was in NASA’s robotic army system but her passion was in improving science education, particularly for girls. With her life partner Tam O’Shaughnessy and three others she founded Sally Ride Science. They started the company in 2001 to “inspire young people in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and to promote STEM literacy” according to its website. The organization is currently based at the University of California in San Diego. Although Ride died in 2012, the organization continues to thrive.

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Tam on STEAM is series in which Tam O’Shaughnessy seeks to inspire girls and women with stories of women’s success in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art design, and Math (STEAM). A current article on this site is “How a girl from Tijuana became a champion of cross-border scientific ties.” Another is “How a girl who loved learning became a top soil scientist.” We know that women are underrepresented in STEM. In fact, more women were studying computer science in the 1980s when Ride flew in space than now. Women, who make up 50 percent of the college-educate workforce only account for 29% of STEM jobs—25% of computer scientists and 15% of engineers. One of the barriers to getting more women in STEM jobs is that there aren’t enough women in STEM to serve as models. Girls don’t have as many images of women in lab coats or space suits. Sally Ride Science aims to changes that by providing stories through their book series Cool Careers in STEM. The series doesn’t exclusively focus on women in STEM jobs but has representation that allows girls to imagine themselves in these positions too.

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Ride’s commitment to inspiring interest in science, technology, engineering, and math in students was born of her own love of science as a child. She was lucky enough to have parents who supported these interests. As a girl she played with her chemistry set and telescope as much as she played sports. Once she started her training with NASA she discovered that she loved flying and it became a hobby for her. Before Ride, most astronauts were military pilots which until 1974 completely excluded women because they weren’t allowed to fly as military pilots until then—despite the Katherine Wright being involved with the first flights. 

Alan Shepard had a Bachelor of Science from the U.S. Naval Academy in what, I haven’t been able to find. Most comments on his education were that he was not a particularly good student and just managed to pull off a degree. After going into space he was given multiple honorary degrees but at the time of his flight he had a B.S. in nothing particular. Ride, on the other hand, had a B.S. in Physics, a B.A. in English, an M.S. in Physics, and a PhD in Physics. As a Northeastern University article states about women in STEM, “you can be anything, but you’re going to have to fight for it.”

Article by Claire Ryder
VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist

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