Sally Ride is a big hero of mine. Her birthday seems an appropriate time to remember her. I wrote this piece from her perspective for an Old Lesbians Organizing for Change (OLOC) event. Each of us took on the persona of a lesbian in history and I chose to be Sally. Researching Sally’s life was difficult as she was such a private person, but there’s a new biography of her that promises to provide more detail. http://io9.com/the-secret-life-of-sally-ride-the-first-american-woman-1586255004
Sally Ride Comes Out
Now that I am dead, you know that I was a lesbian. My partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy, helped me write the obit, and my lesbian sister, Bear, made it clear to the press, if there were any doubts. Bear is a Presbyterian minister and gay activist who has gotten arrested at protests, but that’s not who I was. We laughed that I was the most Norwegian in the family, a very private person in a very public job. It served me well.
Why didn’t I come out while I was alive? I didn’t come out as having pancreatic cancer either, which I’d been diagnosed with 17 months before I died. I had to keep my private life separate from my public life. For one thing, in any male-dominated job you have to contend with a certain amount of harassment and misogyny. In NASA, as you can imagine, there was a military man asshole factor. You didn’t want to bring that home. Everyone wants to know why I married that guy in 1982. Protection.
Besides, it wasn’t really about me. I was a symbol for all women. I could not have been the first American woman astronaut to travel into space if I had come out as a lesbian. It was hard enough being a woman in a “man’s” job. If the Soviets hadn’t sent up two women before me, would the U.S. have thought it necessary to have a female too? I think the answer is clear. The men who ran NASA did not regard women as suitable or capable to be astronauts, but the Soviet Union had been running ahead of the U.S. since Sputnik was launched in 1959. We had to win the race with the Soviets. The first Soviet female cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova, orbited the earth 48 times in 1963. I went up for the first time in 1983.
I was completing a PhD in physics at Stanford when I answered an ad in the Stanford student newspaper seeking applicants for the space program. I joined NASA in 1978. I served as the ground-based capsule communicator for the second and third space shuttle flights and helped develop the space shuttle’s robot arm. Then I was chosen to be a crewmember on the Space Shuttle Challenger. I was the first woman to use the robot arm in space and the first to use the arm to retrieve a satellite.
During the run-up to the flight, I was the subject of much press attention. Reporters asked me questions like, “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?” and “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” exposing the level of sexism still prevalent in the American culture. I spent 343 hours in space on two missions on the Challenger in 1983 and 1984 and was training for a third when the Challenger disaster occurred. Then I was assigned to investigate that incident, and later the Columbia disaster as well.
Tam was the love of my life, and a fascinating accomplished woman in her own right. We met as kids while we were both aspiring tennis players. She was coached by Billy Jean King and went on to play on the women’s pro circuit in the 1970s. After she retired from tennis she founded the women’s tennis association newsletter and remained its publisher for several years. She became a professor of school psychology and she’s an award winning children’s science writer.
Our partnership was more than just a marriage. We collaborated on six children’s science books. She published six more on her own.
Like me, Tam was a scientist and educator and deeply concerned about the underrepresentation of women in science and technical professions. Along with some like-minded friends, we founded Sally Ride Science with the goal of narrowing the gender gap in science. Tam remains the CEO. We accomplished much but there is still much to do.