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Sally Ride’s place in history was assured when she became the first American woman in space. But her legacy and influence extend well beyond that milestone. Her career opened doors for women and inspired thousands of young girls. We remember her career and consider her legacy.
- Valerie Neal Curator of the post-Apollo Human Spaceflight Collection, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Raw video from Sally Ride’s 1983 space flight:
Sally Ride reflects on her historic flight on NASA’s 50th anniversary:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, lie detector tests in use by some government agencies and allegations of misuse, but first, Sally Ride may not have dreamt of being an astronaut as a child, but after earning a degree in physics along with another in English, she came across a newspaper ad that shaped the course of her career.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFor the first time, NASA was seeking astronauts outside of the military and Ride thought, I could do that. The agency agreed and accepted her along with five other women into their training program. And in 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIShe passed away yesterday after a 17-month bout with pancreatic cancer. Here to help us remember Ride's accomplishments and consider her legacy is Valerie Neal, curator of the Post-Apollo Human Spaceflight Collection at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Valerie Neal, thank you so much for joining us on short notice.
MS. VALERIE NEALThank you for inviting me here.
NNAMDIHer place in the history books is assured, but you say Sally Ride's legacy is more nuanced than her historic space flights, how so?
NEALI think her legacy is nuanced in several ways. The first primarily deals with that first space flight. Sally Ride was one of six women, as you noted, who came into the astronaut corps together and together they were pathfinders, barrier breakers.
NEALThey trained together. They were selected together. They prepared for space flight together and by whatever choices were made, Sally happened to be the first one who had a chance to fly. But they all knew that one of them would be first and they were all essentially equally prepared to be the first.
NEALAnd so she ended up representing that group, as well as representing all women of her age cohort, myself included, and women who had perhaps longed to be part of the astronaut corps, the space program when it was not really an opportunity yet available for them. So her legacy is partly in the mix of that group of women.
NEALBut after she had her flights and her active duty...
NNAMDIYou point out that her space flights were, in fact, the briefest part of her career?
NEALThey were indeed. She flew twice in 1983. In 1984, she had her second mission very quickly, but then the Challenger tragedy brought an end to space flight for a couple of years. And it was during that pivotal time and traumatic time that she moved on to another track. And given her stature as the first American woman in space, she was appointed to the investigation committee to determine the causes and recommend remedies after the Challenger tragedy.
NNAMDISomething we'll talk about a little later. I'd like to invite our audience to join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. What do you remember about watching coverage of Sally Ride's Challenger missions? Were you inspired to pursue a career in science as a result of Sally Ride's historic flights? 800-433-8850 or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Valerie Neal, curator of the Post-Apollo Human Spaceflight Collection at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. You can also send a tweet with your question or comment to us @kojoshow or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Many astronauts dream of space flight from childhood, but Sally Ride's career nearly took a very different turn. She was a pretty good tennis player.
NEALThat's correct, she was good enough to be considered eligible to become a pro and make a career as a professional tennis player. In fact, no less than Billie Jean King served as a mentor to her and encouraged her to become a tennis pro. She also was very well schooled in literature, a fan of Shakespeare and a very good writer, as evidenced by her own books.
NEALSo she might well have had a career in writing, in teaching language and literature. She certainly could have had a career in teaching physics and astrophysics or being a researcher in those scientific disciplines.
NNAMDII suddenly -- l love the answers she gave that I read in The New York Times obit about when a child asked her what made her decide to become a scientist instead of a tennis player. She laughed and said a bad forehand.
NEALAnd I think that gives an indication that she didn't take herself overly seriously. I think she was certainly a confident woman, a woman who knew her abilities, but she wasn't star struck with herself. And I think she wore the fame that came to her lightly, but she realized it put her in a serious position to have an influence, to be able to inspire and influence people. So she recognized the importance of being a role model, even though she never sought to be a role model.
NNAMDIAfter her final flight, you were just beginning to mention she earned a reputation for asking tough questions as an investigator of the aftermath of the Challenger and Columbia. How did those tragedies shape her career?
NEALWell, I think, initially, they brought her into the executive track at NASA for a brief period of time. And certainly during the Challenger investigation, she was the face, not of NASA management, but the face of the NASA workforce on the committee. She was investigating the deaths of her colleagues and looking at the performance of the people who are fundamentally responsible for the safety for everyone who enters the spacecraft and launches into space.
NEALSo she was coming at the tragedy with a real earnest desire to get to the heart of it so that the problems could be solved, the issues could be resolved and given a commitment to space flight so that it could be resumed. I think she wasn't overly concerned about the fallout from the investigation in terms of the image of NASA or the image of the institution, but she was concerned about the impact of the investigation and that changes be made that would preclude that type of accident from happening again.
NNAMDIShe worked on a study on leadership and America's future in space and you think that these things put together may have been what caused her to decide the time had come for her to shift in a new direction because things had changed within the space program.
NEALShe might well have felt that at that point. I'm only speculating because I don't know her and never had this conversation with her. But she might have felt that she had made the contribution that she was capable of making having flown twice. She knew the drill.
NEALShe had had a wonderful experience doing very difficult missions. She had been through the rigors of the accident investigation. She had played an important role in plotting out what a potential future for America might be in space and for whatever reason, it seems that she turned back to education at that time and that came to define the longest part of her career.
NEALHer involvement first at the graduate level at the University of California in San Diego, she was very much involved in the California Space Institute, a research institution and then increasingly turned her attention to younger students, the middle school age. And I think she spent the last decade or more really focused on them.
NNAMDII'm glad we mentioned the investigation because that's what Adam in McLean, Va. has a question about. Adam, you are now on the air. Go ahead, please.
ADAMThank you, Kojo, excellent show. I listen to you every day. I just want to thank you for doing the show.
ADAMAnd I'm very interested in the space program, specifically, when the Challenger accident occurred. It was a very, very traumatizing thing to the nation and to, you know, everybody as a whole. I did a lot of research and especially in grad school in looking into -- there was a lot of cover-ups that happened at NASA at the time. And there were a lot of documentaries about that.
ADAMAnd my biggest question I had was NASA was under pressure, as I understand it, to put up so many flights and they wouldn't actually put this on delay when it needed to, due to weather and the O-ring seals. My question for Sally Ride was, in a culture that was back then, I'm going back to '86 now that was dominated a lot by, you know, a lot of...
NNAMDII can't hear you anymore, Adam. Adam seems to have dropped off the line. Is there anything you'd like to respond to that Adam was saying? But Adam, try to call back again because for some reason or the other, you dropped off. If you, too, would like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIMany remembrances have noted how reluctant Sally Ride was to embrace the spotlight. But even after she retired from spaceflight, it's my understanding that she never faded from NASA's radar screen, that there were people there who thought, at some point, she should head NASA herself.
NEALShe had been under consideration. Her name had surfaced several times as a potential administrator for NASA when there was a change in the White House. And I think by virtue of having been not only the first woman astronaut for the United States, but having served in this role on the Presidential Commission to investigate the Challenger accident, she had established her gravitas.
NEALIt was clear that she knew how things worked inside the agency. She had the technical background and she would have been a reasonable candidate. I think, though, her own persona was perhaps more reserved and more modest. As you said, she didn't seek the limelight.
NEALThere are many indications that she preferred to live in a world of her own choosing and a world that she could do what she wanted to do, what gave vent to her passion and she was trying to be a normal person living a normal life.
NNAMDIIt seems that she was successful in keeping her private life private, as some might have been surprised to learn she is survived by a same-sex partner of nearly three decades. What influence, if any, do you think that fact will have on her legacy?
NEALWell, judging by the outpouring of, I would say, interest in Sally Ride in the last two days, the laudatory remarks about her that are all over the web and in the media, I would suspect that it won't have an impact, that her legacy that she had already established will be the legacy that remains.
NNAMDIWell, there may be some controversy because I'm just reading here that the The Daily Kos and others are reporting that Sally Ride is being called an American hero and other such, I guess, titles, but because of the Defense of Marriage Act, Sally Ride's partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy is denied any federal benefits that a straight couple enjoys.
NNAMDIApparently, Tam is also mentioned in all of the obituaries so that might be an issue we're hearing about in days to come. We got an email from Charlie who says, "Please don't let it go unmentioned that Sally Ride was gay and is survived by her partner of 27 years." Well, I think we just covered that.
NNAMDIYou know that even for those who were not around to witness coverage, Sally Ride is an icon with multi-generational appeal. Why do you think that is?
NEALI was talking with other women with whom I work and we were commenting among ourselves that Sally Ride had been a factor in our lives and we span about probably 40 years in age range. For those who came of age in the '60s and '70s, she was one of us and we were proud of her. And we were proud of her because she was accomplishing something as a first as were the other women in that group that had been unimaginable just a few years earlier.
NEALAnd then for the group that came of age in the '80s and '90s they remember their parents pointing to her as someone to be inspired by and as an example of, look you can be anything you want to be. Here is the first woman -- American woman who went into space. You can achieve great things too. So I think because she's going to be in the history books now forever because of the 1983 flight she's going to be looked at that way forever.
NNAMDIShouldn't she also be in the history books for what she apparently spent most of her career doing, and that is being involved in science education?
NEALAnd I think actually that will be her greatest legacy. But it will be a more disbursed legacy and in some ways probably a less visible legacy because in our culture we don't lionize educators. They have one of the hardest jobs but it's less glamorous than being an astronaut. And so they don't get the attention they deserve. But I think the work that she has been doing through her Sally Ride Science Organization and through her writing, through her interactions with teachers as well as students, and particularly young girls, her influence is going to be wide spread in ways that may be much more subtle -- very likely will be much more subtle.
NNAMDIAnd -- but isn't it in a way typical of her that she would choose the less glamorous road to a career than simply trying to continue to be an astronaut?
NEALI think so. She didn't really live her life out on the national stage. She didn't live as a celebrity. In fact, most of the shuttle astronauts don't. She could well have done that but she consciously chose not to. And I think she came from a family where her father was an educator and her mother was involved in social wellness issues. I think that influence of her parents was probably a factor in her deciding to spend the better part of her career trying to do something better for society.
NNAMDIOn to Celeste in Washington, D.C. Celeste, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Oh, oh. Celeste who has dropped off but I'm afraid we've come to the end of our time. We'll see if it was a problem with the telephones. But you can still call us for our next segment at 800-433-8850. Valerie Neal, thank you so much for joining us.
NEALThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIValerie Neal is curator of the post-Apollo Human Spaceflight Collection at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. When we come back, lie detector tests in use by some government agencies and allegations of misuse. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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