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Saturday 21 October 2017

Sally Ride

First American woman in space who showed 'millions of little girls that they, too, could be heroes'

Sally Ride, who died last Monday of pancreatic cancer aged 61, became the first American woman (and, at 32, the youngest American) in space in 1983, when she and four colleagues blasted off aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger.

The United States was comparatively slow in putting a woman into orbit. In 1959 Jerrie Cobb had been selected by Nasa, only to be dropped when the organisation cancelled the women's programme. In 1962 the astronaut John Glenn testified at a congressional hearing that "men fly the airplanes and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order".

Such factors did not restrain the Soviet Union, where, in 1963, Valentina Tereshkova, a 26-year-old textile worker, became the first woman in space, orbiting Earth in her Vostok VI spaceship.

American space-watchers did not allow the fact that their country had lost the women's space race to spoil the party.

"On launch day, there was so much excitement and so much happening around us in crew quarters, even on the way to the launch pad," Dr Ride recalled in 2008.

"I didn't really think about it that much at the time -- but I came to appreciate what an honour it was to be selected to be the first to get a chance to go into space."

She kept her cool the day before the ride as reporters bombarded her with intrusive questions: Would space flight affect her reproductive organs? Did she plan to have children? How would she deal with menstruation in space? Would she wear a bra? ("There is no sag in zero-g," she replied).

Meanwhile, on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson predicted that the Shuttle flight would have to be delayed because Dr Ride had to find a purse to match her shoes. "It's too bad this is such a big deal," she said. "It's too bad our society isn't further along."

But Gloria Steinem predicted that "millions of little girls are going to sit by their television sets and see they can be astronauts, heroes, explorers and scientists".

Indeed, Dr Ride took part in two Challenger missions, in 1983 and 1984, logging a total of 343 hours in space and blazing a trail followed so far by 42 other American women. A third ride, however, was cancelled when the Shuttle blew up in 1986, 73 seconds after taking off from Cape Canaveral, killing all the astronauts on board, including a woman schoolteacher.

Sally Kristen Ride was born on May 26, 1951, in Encino, Los Angeles. Her father was a political science professor, her mother a volunteer counsellor at a women's jail. She was educated at Westlake High School, Beverly Hills, where she was inspired by a science teacher to study maths and science.

After leaving school, she began a physics degree at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania but, homesick for California, left after three terms.

In 1970, she enrolled at Stanford, where she took a double degree in physics and English literature followed by a doctorate in Astrophysics.

She also played tennis for the college and was ranked 18th nationally.

Billie Jean King told her she was good enough to become a professional. Years later, when asked why she had dismissed the suggestion, she replied: "A bad forehand."

In 1978, she answered a Nasa advertisement for "missions specialists" on future space flights.

She learnt to fly a jet and trained in parachute jumping, survival techniques at sea, weightlessness and dealing with the huge g-forces of a rocket launch. She also helped to develop a robotic arm for the Space Shuttle.

It was partly due to her expertise with the device that the Challenger commander, Robert Crippen, chose her for the 1983 mission, during which she deployed the arm to retrieve a satellite.

In 1987, Dr Ride led a study team that wrote a report for Nasa which noted that the United States had "lost leadership" to the Soviet Union in a number of aspects of space exploration and suggested the building of an outpost on the Moon as a base for future voyages to Mars.

Dr Ride wrote six children's books with the aim of interesting young people, girls in particular, in mathematics and technology. In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science, to "make science and engineering cool again" by providing science programmes for schools and teacher training.

Dr Ride was a private woman who rejected the trappings of celebrity, refusing offers for product endorsements, memoirs and film appearances.

In 1982, she married Steven Hawley, a fellow astronaut, but they divorced in 1987. In an obituary posted on her website, Dr Ride noted that, for the past 27 years, she had been in a homosexual relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy, who survives her.

Sunday Independent

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