Encyclopedia Womannica

Explorers & Contenders: Sally Ride

Episode Summary

Sally Ride (1951-2012) was the first American woman in space.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

You’ve probably heard the name of today’s explorer -- but you might be surprised to learn she was inspired to try making history after reading a simple ad in the newspaper. She inspired countless women to reach for the stars, just like her. We’re talking about the first American woman in space, Sally Ride!

Sally Ride was born on May 26, 1951, in Encino, California. She didn’t always have space on her mind -- in fact, as a child she dreamed of becoming a professional tennis player. She started playing tennis at age 10 and earned a scholarship to a prestigious LA-based prep school for girls. By her teens, Sally ranked in the national top 20 on the junior tennis circuit.

After high school, Sally attended Swarthmore College for a couple years before deciding to leave to pursue a tennis career. That didn’t last long. Soon she decided to return to school and she enrolled at Stanford. By 1978, she earned several degrees -- a BA in English, as well as a BS, Master of Science, and doctorate degree in physics. 

Meanwhile, NASA was developing and expanding its space program. The organization realized it would need to include astronauts with academic and technological skills as "mission specialists" on flights, in addition to experienced pilots. So, NASA placed ads in the newspaper seeking fit, educated individuals. In 1977, Sally answered the ad. She was one of only six women selected for the program.

She trained as part of the NASA class of '78 to prepare for a space flight. Her athleticism really came in handy! The astronauts had to train in physical skills like parachute jumping and water survival, in addition to scientific preparation.

Sally was set to be one of the five crew members of the space shuttle Challenger STS-7. She later recalled that the most difficult part of the time before her mission was dealing with the press, and regularly struggling with sexist questions.

The press asked Sally about the shuttle bathroom, what makeup she was taking with her to space, whether she cried in the middle of simulator emergencies, whether the mission would affect her ability to reproduce, and more. Though Sally wasn't used to the public eye, she dealt with the questions gracefully. 

On June 18, 1983, Sally became the first American woman in space, as well as the youngest American in space. 

Sally was the flight engineer during the week-long mission. Her role was to launch communication satellites, operate the shuttle’s mechanical arm, and conduct experiments. When her first flight was complete, she went on another shuttle mission the following year to study fueling techniques and make observations of the Earth.

After her two missions in space, Sally spent the rest of her life on Earth -- but her work was far from over. She investigated the events that lead to the tragic 1986 Challenger accident, and later became the special assistant to the NASA administrator for long range and strategic planning.

Sally also served as the Director of the California Space Science Institute, and taught physics at the University of California. She served as a member of the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Sally hadn’t had many opportunities to study science as a child -- in fact, her elite high school lacked many options for advanced science and math classes. So as an adult, Sally was passionate about bolstering science education and encouraging more young women to follow a scientific path. She created Imaginary Lines, a company dedicated to establishing more science programs for middle schoolers, and Sally Ride Science, a nonprofit organization that encourages STEM-related interests in children. She also wrote several children’s books related to space.

Sadly, Sally developed pancreatic cancer at 60 years old. After a 17-month battle, she passed away.

After Sally’s death, elements of her private life began to emerge. She had spent 27 years in a relationship with her childhood friend Tam O’Shaughnessy, making Sally the first known gay astronaut. In 2013, President Obama posthumously awarded Sally with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which Tam accepted in her honor.

Sally’s legacy continues to inspire and her work improving science education has ensured other young girls can follow in her footsteps to break barriers. 

All month, we’re talking about Explorers and Contenders. On Sundays, we’re taking a break from our normal episodes to highlight women we’ve previously covered who did amazing things in healthcare. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter, Womannica Weekly. 

You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!