Sally Ride Is Dead

The book was called To Space And Back. It was big, with glossy photographs taken by real astronauts in outer space, and diagrams that showed what the inside of a space shuttle looked like. Where did I get it? Maybe it was a present, or something I picked out at a museum gift shop. We went to a lot of museums in the 80’s.

The book was by Sally Ride, the first American woman to travel into outer space. I loved the hell out of that book because it was a story about a woman doing a thing people said women couldn’t do, and I wanted to be a woman like that some day. A woman like Sally Ride, like Amelia Earhart, like Joan of Arc. I’d never been good at science, or even all that interested in it, but because of Sally Ride I became interested in outer space and started begging my parents to send me to Space Camp (they never did). I had this idea, because I was a child and a therefore fundamentally ridiculous human being, that if I was an astronaut, I would get to fly rocket ships with Sally Ride herself. Have I mentioned that I became obsessed with Sally Ride? I was obsessed with Sally Ride. Sometimes her hair looked like my Mom’s hair, which made her easier to draw. I drew a lot of pictures of Sally Ride.

As a little tomboy in the 1980’s, when I thought about what I wanted to do with my life I never imagined I’d be doing something that involved a lot of other women (unless I succeeded in inventing my Women’s Professional Baseball League). There weren’t a lot of models for that kind of life. Instead I imagined a life like Sally Ride’s — being the only woman in every photograph, on every team, in every meeting. I was already used to that kind of thing because I was always doing activities that somehow landed me as the only girl in so many little rooms. Sally Ride was my hero, of sorts, and I was confident that she’d like me a lot when we met, which, of course, never happened. I mean, I’m genuinely terrible at science.

Today, following a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer, Sally Ride died at the age of 61.

“What’s it like to be in space?” “Is it scary?” “Is it cold?” “Do you have trouble sleeping?” These are questions that everyone asks astronauts who have been in space. The experience is hard to describe. The words and pictures in this book will help you imagine what it’s like to blast off in a rocket and float effortlessly in midair while circling hundreds of miles above the earth.”

– From the introduction to “To Space and Back,” by Sally Ride with journalist Susan Okie.

sally ride flew air force jets as part of her astronaut training

Sally Ride was pretty special from the get-go — bright, curious, ambitious. Born in Encino, California, in 1951, as a teenager she earned a scholarship to the prestigious Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles and then went on to get a B.A. (English & Physics), master’s degree (physics) and Ph.D. (physics) from Stanford University. As a young woman she was also a prolific tennis player who idolized Billie Jean King. She actually met her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy, playing tennis when both girls were 12.

In 1978 she joined NASA, one of six women and 35 people total chosen from the over 8,000 applicants who responded to a newspaper ad seeking new people for the space program. She completed four years of Astronaut training before June 18th, 1983, when aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, she became the first American woman in space. She flew again on The Challenger in 1984.

In 1986, teacher Christa McAuliffe, meant to be the first female teacher in space, was one of seven crew members who died when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight. The space program was put on a 32-month hiatus and Sally Ride was chosen to head the operations subcommittee of the presidential commission investigating the accident. Neil Armstrong was Vice Chairman of the commission, called the Rogers Commission after its Chairman William P.Rogers. After the investigation, Ride moved to NASA headquarters in D.C. to lead their first strategic planning effort and found their Office of Exploration.

She retired from NASA in 1987 and quickly began making her mark on land; working at the Stanford University Center for International Security and Arms Control, teaching physics at UC-San Diego and serving as director of the California Space Institute.

sally ride on the muppets

In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science, a company that aims to “make a difference in girls’ lives, and in society’s perceptions of their roles in technical fields,” creating innovative science education programs and products “that educate, entertain, engage and inspire.” The Sally Ride Science Camp offers “hands-on” science camps for middle-school-aged girls at Universities in California and Massachusetts. In 2009 she partnered with ExxonMobil to create the Sally Ride Science Academy and became the Education and Public Outreach lead for NASA’s GRAIL MoonKam, which enables kids all over the country to solicit and study photographs taken from satellites orbiting the Moon.

Ride has been inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame, the California Hall of Fame, The National Women’s Hall of Fame and The National Aviation Hall of Fame. Earlier this year she was awarded the 2012 National Space Grant Distinguished Service Award.

Ride devoted much of her adult life to being an advocate for women in science, speaking about how to nurture girls’ interest in science and scientific careers and developing programs to foster these tiny trailblazers into becoming strong ambitious women like Sally Ride. Can you even imagine how many girls she’s inspired, now? What a life.

Although Sally Ride married another astronaut, Steven Hawley, in 1982, they divorced in 1987. She spent the last 27 years in a relationship with Tam O’Shaughnessy. Tam is the Chief Operating Officer and vice president of Sally Ride Science.

In a 2006 interview for the Academy of Achievement, Sally Ride was asked what it was like to be up there in space, or what she saw when she had time just to look. This was her answer:

The view of earth is absolutely spectacular. And the feeling of looking back and seeing your planet as a planet is just an amazing feeling. It’s a totally different perspective, and it makes you appreciate, actually, how fragile our existence is. You can look at earth’s horizon and see this really, really thin royal blue line right along the horizon, and at first you don’t really quite internalize what that is, and then you realize that it’s earth’s atmosphere, and that that’s all there is of it, and it’s about as thick as the fuzz on a tennis ball, and it’s everything that separates us from the vacuum of space.

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Riese is the 41-year-old Co-Founder of as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in nine books, magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. She's Jewish and has a cute dog named Carol. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 3179 articles for us.


      • Are we sure she was gay rather than bi though? Since she had a husband first (and no, I’m not trying to be THAT person and say that if you were able to be married to someone of the opposite sex you CAN’T be gay, that’s BS, but if she didn’t discuss her personal life that much who knows, maybe she was into guys too?)

        Anyway, she’s such an awesome feminist icon and it makes me so sad to hear that she’s gone, and I feel like she’s even more awesome to me now that I know she was queer too.

        • Note: I did it kind of a clumsy way but this was basically my way of asking if there was something out there that said she was gay rather than bi, since it seems like she was private about that side of her life.

          • Agree. I feel like if a lady known to love a lady hasn’t self-labelled, calling them queer rather than lesbian or bi is more inclusive. Maybe that’s my *bi*as lol.

          • she has self-labelled as gay.

            [and i honestly still can’t believe we’ve gotten to a point with this conversation that it seems appropriate to anybody to have here, now. i wouldn’t mis-label somebody in an obituary, precisely to avoid the risk of this conversation.]

          • I don’t think you’d mislabel someone intentionally, whether in an obituary or not. But asking the question seems appropriate to me–I haven’t seen anywhere, although I may well be missing something–a statement from Ride herself regarding being lesbian or bi, or any other label. Just statements that she was openly with her female partner of 27 years. A spokeswoman for Sally Ride Science said “what’s on the website is true”, but again, that just confirms her relationship with O’Shaughnessy.

          • And if “gay” is what she has self-labeled as, then maybe the sub-head or article summary on the home page should reflect that rather than “lesbian”?

          • Yeah, I expressed it in a weird way but I didn’t meant to imply that Riese would mislabel anyone. It’s become clear to me since the comment that Ride was gay.

        • I was wondering the same thing myself. Was she a closeted lesbian during her marriage? Is this a case of bi erasure? Or is it really just none of our beeswax ;)

        • Just wanted to say I was married first. I slept with men, had a child, married, divorced. I am with my partner of 2 years and raising my child with her now. I am a lesbian, always have been, just thought I was doing what society wanted out of me. So, your comment seems irrelevant and immature. Some ppl just make stupid decisions without really knowing what they want.

          • My comment was made before there seemed to be anything that she was identifying as one or the other, just that she’d had a female partner but was married first. As I made clear, I’m well aware that people can be gay and be in opposite-sex relationships; after all, one of our editors here had a really great article about her own experience with that.

          • But I am sorry if I might have suggested otherwise; I don’t want to hurt anyone or to invalidate anyone’s sexual orientation. I’m bi but thought I was straight until I was 19, and I’ve been in relationships that ended because the other person realized they were of incompatible sexual orientation, so believe me when I say that I understand this and it wasn’t my intention to suggest otherwise.

            (adding on because I realized my previous comment sounded defensive)

        • Sally Ride was a very private person. Thus for outsiders it has never been clear what her identity was and it still is not. The thing is Sally Ride did not like labels, as her sister Bear Ride wrote:

          “Sally didn’t use labels.”

          “Sally hated labels of every kind — including ‘hero’ …sigh,”

          Please respect her choices in this.

      • My best friend worked with her at UCSD while she was teaching there, and said that while she maintained her privacy in the press, she was publicly out on campus.

      • I’ve watched the coverage today on every morning show and not one of them mentioned 1) She was gay or 2) Her partner of 27 years. WTF?

  1. Met her many years ago when I was young. We chatted briefly about the space program and she signed my copy of her book. I told her I used to stare up at the stars and wish I could be her. She said “Some days, I still can’t believe I get to be me!” she signed my book simply “Katie, keep looking up.” Think I’ll pull that out and re-read it.

  2. I didn’t realize she was fighting cancer until I saw the news today. So sad to hear about her death, she was an incredible person. I was a bit more obsessed with Amelia Earhart as a kid but Sally Ride was still huge to me because it doesn’t get much cooler than being an astronaut.

    My condolences to her friends and family.

  3. She was an amazing lady and definitely one of my childhood heros. It was because of her that I loved science as a kid and continue to today. It is also because of her influence on me that I am now pursuing a degree in science as a college student.

  4. Political heartbreaker: Tam won’t be receiving widow benefits like every other astronauts wife.

      • I think the relevant benefit here is the Federal Retirement Death Benefit, which states in that chart: “In the event of your death, your domestic partner is eligible to receive lump-sum payments for your Federal retirement (if named as a beneficiary), however, they are not currently eligible to receive a survivor annuity or the basic death benefit.”

        I believe it’s the part after the “however” that cchase is referring to.

  5. This is a very touching tribute riese. I was going to add my sorrow and share my similar adoration…but i just am being quiet and wondering if i will ever accomplish a tiny fraction of the things she did.

  6. I find out today that one of my favorite women died?! i didn’t even know she was dying :( I probably did at least 2 reports on her in middle school… and how did i not know she was lesbian?! Now my heart is double broken :'(

  7. I’m a physicist and often the only girl in the room (and ALWAYS the youngest). RIP Sally Ride, you were awesome, thanks for being a trailblazer. And also for trying to get girls interested in science. I don’t usually mind being the only girl in the room but it would be great if I didn’t have to be.

    PS Anyone who wants to help to her foundation they have something called “Sponsor a Girl” for their science festivals. The website is confusing and I can’t tell if they want money or for you to write a message to a girl but if it’s the latter I’m totally doing it.

    Wow, I have a lot of feelings about someone I didn’t know wasn’t dead until she died, if that makes sense.

  8. Glad to know I’m not the only one who aspired to be Sally as a young girl nor the only one who didn’t go to space camp.
    I had an obsession with all things space and watched the Right Stuff and Space Camp more times than I care to share (torturing numerous family members with the movie viewing).
    I had no idea that she suffered from pancreatic cancer and did not find out she was a lesbian until today.
    Never became an astronaut but ended up with a science degree and a good profession. Thank you Dr Ride for being a hero and role model.

  9. It seems like every time one of my childhood feminist icons pass away, I end up learning more interesting things about her and admiring her even more. I was totally a kid who at one point wanted to be an astronaut, and it was because of Sally Ride that I knew that was possible.

    Also @riese:

    “unless I succeeded in inventing my Women’s Professional Baseball League”

    You should meet my mom. She is a baseball fanatic and as a little girl her big ambition was to be a Major League umpire. I like to think if she was born a generation later she might have aspired to actually play baseball but who knows – we still don’t have that women’s version of MLB yet. :(

  10. I had the opportunity to work at NASA for a short while. Her memory was very well remembered and respected there. It is such a shame.

  11. I was so surprised to hear about Sally’s passing today. This breaks my heart. I always looked up to her when I was a young teenager. I thought she was so beautiful and smart. She inspired me to want to be a pilot and possibly an astronaut. The other woman who was of inspiration was Amelia Earhart. Oh my GOD! I just went to google Amelia Earhart and a picture of an airplane with a drawing of her is on the front page of the website saying that it’s her 115th birthday! Wow! What a coincidence. I’m sure they are both flying the skies together now! They are both my inspirations!!!

  12. “She actually met her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy, playing tennis when both girls were 12.”

    I am hell of hormonal right now and just burst into tears while reading this on the computer monitor which is also my shop till.


  13. Riese.
    Thank you for writing this article.
    I loved Sally Fucking Ride! Loved her. She was my child hood hero as well and I HAD NO IDEA SHE WAS A HUGE LEZZY!!!!!
    This made my morning.
    I want to high five you.
    Thanks <3

    • Good article. And great quote from Ride. Now I have this wonderful feeling for Earth said by someone who got to see it all to go with all the amazing pictures.

  14. I really like the message that Bill Nye the Science Guy’s Facebook page (I’m not sure if it’s actually him or not) had about Sally Ride last night:

    “Dr. Sally Ride changed the world. An accomplished astronaut, she focused on getting kids, especially girls excited about science: Science is a human endeavor. Half the humans are girls and women, so half the grownup scientists should be women.”

    Fucking YES.

  15. This is really sad, but at the same time I’m learning so much about her now that I never knew before.

    Female astronauts hold a special place in my heart because when I was young all I wanted to be two things – an astronaut and an author. I used to sit in the library and read about space. I also had a pack of astronaut cards and would spend so much time looking at the female astronauts, reading every little bit of info on their cards, thinking, if they can do that so can I.

    Unfortunately, like you I am bad at science. And math. And engineering. And everything you need to become an astronaut. But I still think women astronauts have inspired me, you know – not to go to space, obvs. but still to do and accomplish things I want to do that may be difficult.

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