Faithful Departed: Sally Ride

If I ascend to the heavens,
you are there.
If I fly with the wings of the dawn
and alight beyond the sea,
Even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand hold me fast.

Psalm 139: 8a-10

In 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. At a press conference on the eve of her historic flight, reporters asked her what effect space travel would have on her reproductive organs and whether she was prone to weeping when things didn’t go according to plan. I find it difficult (OK, actually incredibly amusing) to imagine the same questions being posed to Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin. Ride handled these questions — the content of which ranged from insultingly silly to profoundly sexist — with grace, reserve, and professionalism. She was a class act.

Sally Ride, who saw herself as just another astronaut, changed the face of the American space program. Not only was she the first female astronaut, she was also the youngest (and remains the youngest to this day). She gave women like me who were born in the 80s — the era of talking Barbie dolls who assured us that “Math class is tough!” — an image of a strong, competent, accomplished female scientist. And not only was Sally Ride a brilliant astrophysicist, she was an explorer. She ventured into the final frontier. She operated a robot arm to recover satellites in space. She was a real live space hero of our very own.

Her remarkable contribution to science and the space program did not end with her last trip into space. She was among the very few who sounded the alarm (in the midst of harsh criticism) that the Space Shuttle Challenger was at risk of potential disaster before it tragically malfunctioned causing the death of the seven crew members aboard. She was appointed by the President of the United States to serve on the commission tasked with investigating the Challenger tragedy and also served on the commission that investigated the Space Shuttle Columbia’s similar fate. She continued her work with NASA and founded Sally Ride Science, a company dedicated to exciting kids (particularly girls) about science and math. In July of 2012, she succumbed to the pancreatic cancer she had battled for 17 months. She was 61. December 17, 2012, the landing site of the two Grail lunar probes was named after Sally Ride in gratitude for her contributions to that mission and to the space program throughout her life.

Although she was the daughter of elders in the Presbyterian Church and the sister of a pastor, Ride never really spoke publically about her faith. I don’t know what she believed or if she subscribed to any particular church or creed. She was an intensely private woman. What I do know is that she lived a life of inquiry and curiosity and courage. She spent a considerable amount of her time trying to instill in young girls the tools to succeed in a field that was (and still is) predominately male. She consistently tried to lift up others as she climbed to further heights in her career. She gave girls like me — and girls like my two young daughters — a new and exciting world of possibilities to imagine for ourselves. She gave — and, indeed, gives — us hope. That is a good and holy gift. So I say, with gratitude and respect: Sally Ride, in life you had the courage and passion to “ascend to the heavens,” “fly with the wings of the dawn and alight beyond [way beyond] the sea.” May God’s hand hold you fast forever. May God bless you with a new and even greater adventure. Thank you, friend. Godspeed.