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Godspeed, Sally Ride

Sally Ride helped to change what the word "astronaut" could mean, and generations of girls have grown up with different ideas about what they could be because of her example.
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Sally Ride was chosen as an astronaut in 1978, when I was six years old. I remember seeing her on the news, along with the other five women selected in that group, the first astronaut class to include women, members of racial minorities and non-pilots. The space shuttle was going to be a different type of spacecraft, and these six women posing for the cameras, dressed casually and leaning on a wooden fence together, embodied that difference like nothing I'd ever seen. My nose practically touched the screen as I took them in -- their feathered hair, their bright makeup, their intelligent eyes. Anna Fisher, Shannon Lucid, Judith Resnik, Sally Ride, Rhea Seddon and Kathryn Sullivan. Here was a new way to be a woman in the world. It's hard to convey now how odd they looked to us, how much they were changing the definition of the word "astronaut," just by existing, even though none of them would go to space for years.

Now we know that not everyone took to the women kindly. Space culture was overwhelmingly male and largely chauvanist in the seventies, and the idea of women going into space alongside men was far from universally accepted. In his autobiography Riding Rockets, astronaut Mike Mullane, who was chosen in the same astronaut class, admits to treating the women astronauts he worked with in ways we would now classify as harassment. Mullane distrusted all the women at first, but especially targeted Sally Ride because he perceived her as a feminist -- not just there because she wanted to fly in space, but because she wanted to make political point.

The women eventually surprised Mullane by doing their jobs well, and to his credit he now holds himself at fault for mistreating them. Ride in particular earned his respect by playing a joke on their fellow astronaut Henry Hartsfield -- for Hartsfield's birthday, she presented him with an issue of Ms. Magazine personalized for him by Gloria Steinem herself, "in recognition of your support of the feminist movement." Mullane was shocked that Ride was capable of pulling off a joke, "just like one of the guys." There's always a special pressure on female "firsts," a level of scrutiny that can seem benign to the observer but does not always feel that way to the observed. Sally Ride said in interviews that she didn't want to be a trailblazer, didn't want to be a "first," she just wanted to go to space. This kind of comment is often dismissed as false modesty, but I believe her. After all, being a first means that no matter what she accomplishes, she will always remembered simply for having being female.

Ride's crewmates were jokingly resentful of the fact that she got all the media attention on their flight, resentfulness that might have been more than just a joke. After all, each of them was making their first flight into space too; each of them had a story to tell. When the astronauts returned to earth, Sally Ride was met with noticeably more enthusiastic applause than the others. In her speech she remarked, "The thing that I'll remember most about the flight is that it was fun. In fact, I'm sure it was the most fun I'll ever have in my life."

Now that 40 more American women have followed Sally Ride out of the Earth's atmosphere, maybe we can remember her for her own qualities as well as for her first-ness. Sally Ride helped to change what the word "astronaut" could mean, and generations of girls have grown up with different ideas about what they could be because of her example. But I hope we will remember her as a leader, a risk-taker, a person who made difficult things seem easy, and most of all as an astronaut who made going to space look like fun.

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