By: Natalie Wolchover, Life's Little Mysteries Staff Writer
Published: 07/24/2012 06:51 PM EDT on SPACE.com
Three hundred and thirty American men and women have served as astronauts since the start of NASA's human spaceflight program. Only one is publicly known to have been gay or bisexual — Sally Ride — and she kept it private until her death, yesterday (July 23), when her obituary on the Sally Ride Science organization's website stated that Ride was survived by Tam O'Shaughnessy, her "partner of 27 years."
As the first American woman in space and a scientist, Ride served as a role model for generations of young girls. Now, she'll serve as a role model for LGBT youth as well, said her sister, Bear Ride. "I hope it makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that another one of their heroes was like them," Bear Ride, who identifies as gay, told Buzzfeed yesterday.
Gay rights advocates say Sally Ride's addition to the ranks of LGBT role models will make a tremendous impact. "Role models are incredibly valuable for everyone, but I think especially for LGBT youth, who may be born into a family where they don't have an LGBT role model. It is so important for them to look out into the world and see they could be welcome in that world," Stuart Gaffney, media director at Marriage Equality USA, told SPACE.com. "Sally Ride will be that for them now."
Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin concurred, telling Buzzfeed, "The fact that Sally Ride was a lesbian will further help round out Americans' understanding of the contributions of LGBT Americans to our country." [Astronaut Sally Ride: In Her Own Words]
Ride's decision to keep her sexual orientation private reflects her very private nature, sources said. But the lack of even one openly gay or lesbian astronaut in the history of American spaceflight may reflect the culture at the NASA astronaut office. Although NASA does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, Michael Cassutt, author of five books and hundreds of articles about human spaceflight, said coming out would until recently have been "a career-wrecker" for an astronaut. "Not for any formal reason, but in the same way that any medical issue or even some kind of notoriety has been an astronaut career-wrecker," Cassutt told SPACE.com.
"Any issue that detracts from the mission is or has been the kind of thing an astronaut wants to avoid. It isn't NASA politics; it is NASA politics as practiced at the astronaut office," Cassutt said, adding that the office has often resembled a "military squadron."
A NASA spokesman told SPACE.com that astronauts decide for themselves what to reveal about their private lives.
"Certainly we try to be open with their professional activities and beyond that what they reveal privately is pretty much up to them," said the spokesman, who asked not to be named. Still, the fact remains that no astronauts have ever come out as gay or lesbian, while many astronauts include mention of their husbands, wives or children on their NASA official biography pages. (As of today, Ride's NASA bio page was updated to mention that she is survived by her mother, with no mention of her partner.)
Cassutt said even though he suspects there are or have been some other gay or lesbian astronauts, and in spite of the progress made on LGBT issues, "I don't expect anyone in the current corps to be 'out' any time soon, assuming anyone is gay."
The implication is that even in 2012, a same-sex orientation could still earn an astronaut unwanted notoriety that would detract from a mission. Robert Pearlman, space historian and founding editor of collectSPACE.com (a SPACE.com partner site), said the choice to shield one's sexuality "unfortunately cannot yet be labeled 'behind the times.' While there are a great many more people who are openly gay today, we are not yet to a point of universal acceptance," he noted.
There is also the fact that 219 of the 330 current and former astronauts served in the military, according to NASA. The U.S. military operated under a "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) policy from 1993 until 2011, under which gay and lesbian servicemen and women had to remain closeted or risk expulsion. The repeal of DADT last year allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. military for the first time in history.
Of NASA's continued culture of no one asking and no one telling, Gaffney of Marriage Equality USA said, "Ultimately, it's a culture that needs to and will change. Harvey Milk said, 'Come out, come out, wherever you are.' The point being that the world needs to know, and LGBT youth need to see, that we really are everywhere and that includes people in every walk of life. Some professions have been quicker to change than others. Every profession is going to change. And the news this week about Sally Ride is just one more example of that."
He added, "It will be part of her legacy that change will come to her profession as well."
China Second Chinese woman in space. Shenzhou 10 (June 11, 2013)
China First Chinese woman in space. Shenzhou 9 (June 16, 2012)
United States Soyuz TMA-19 (June 15, 2010)
Japan STS-131 (April 5, 2010)
United States STS-131 (April 5, 2010)
Nicole P. Stott
United States STS-128 (August 28, 2009) STS-133 (February 24, 2011)
K. Megan McArthur
United States STS-125 (May 11, 2009)
Karen L. Nyberg
United States STS-124 (May 31, 2008)
Republic of Korea First Korean in space. STS-124 (May 31, 2008)
United States STS-118 (Aug. 8, 2007)
Tracy Caldwell Dyson
United States STS-118 (Aug. 8, 2007) Soyuz TMA-18 (April 2, 2010)
United States STS-116 (Dec. 9, 2006)
United States STS-116/117 (Dec. 9, 2006) Soyuz TMA-05M (July 15, 2012)
United States, Iran First female space tourist, first Iranian in space. Soyuz TMA-9/8 (Sep. 18, 2006)
Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper
United States STS-115 (Sep. 9, 2006) STS-126 (Nov. 14, 2008)
United States STS-121 (Jul. 4, 2006)
United States STS-121 (Jul. 4, 2006) STS-120 (Oct. 23, 2007) STS-131 (Apr. 5, 2010)
Laurel B. Clark
United States Died in the Columbia disaster. STS-107 (Feb. 1, 2003) <strong>Correction</strong>: A previous version of this slide said that Laurel Clark died in the Challenger disaster. Clark actually died in the Columbia disaster.
United States STS-112 (Oct. 7, 2002) STS-126/119 (Nov. 14, 2008) STS-135 (July 8, 2011)
United States STS-111/113 (Jun. 5, 2002) Soyuz TMA-11 (Oct. 10, 2007)
United States STS-92 (Oct. 11, 2000) STS-112 (Oct. 7, 2002) STS-120 (Oct. 23, 2007)
Canada STS-96 (May 27, 1999) STS-127 (July 15, 2009)
Janet L. Kavandi
United States STS-91 (Jun. 2, 1998) STS-99 (Feb. 11, 2000) STS-104 (Jul. 12, 2001)
Kathryn P. Hire
United States STS-90 (Apr. 17, 1998) STS-130 (Feb. 8, 2010)
United States First Indian-American woman in space, died in the Columbia disaster. STS-87 (Nov. 19, 1997) STS-107 (Feb. 1, 2003)
Susan Still Kilrain
United States STS-83 (Apr. 4, 1997) STS-94 (Jul. 1, 1997)
France First Frenchwoman in space. Soyuz TM-24/TM-23 (Aug. 17, 1996) Soyuz TM-33/32 (Oct. 21, 2001)
United States STS-73 (Oct. 20, 1995) STS-93 (Jul. 23, 1999) Soyuz TMA-20 (15 December 2010)
Mary E. Weber
United States STS-70 (Jul. 13, 1995) STS-101 (May 19, 2000)
United States STS-67 (Mar. 2, 1995) STS-86 (Sep. 25, 1997) STS-91 (Jun. 2, 1998) STS-114 (Jul. 26, 2005)
United States First female shuttle pilot and shuttle commander. STS-63 (Feb. 3, 1995) STS-84 (May 15, 1997) STS-93 (Jul. 23, 1999) STS-114 (Jul. 26, 2005)
Yelena V. Kondakova
Russia Soyuz TM-20 (Oct. 3, 1994) STS-84 (May 15, 1997)
Japan First Japanese woman in space. STS-65 (Jul. 8, 1994) STS-95 (Oct. 29, 1998)
United States STS-57 (Jun. 21, 1993) STS-70 (Jul. 13, 1995) STS-88 (Dec. 4, 1998) STS-109 (Mar. 1, 2002)
Janice E. Voss
United States STS-57 (Jun. 21, 1993) STS-63 (Feb. 3, 1995) STS-83 (Apr. 4, 1997) STS-94 (Jul. 1, 1997) STS-99 (Feb. 11, 2000)
United States First Hispanic woman in space. STS-56 (Apr. 8, 1993) STS-66 (Nov. 3, 1994) STS-96 (May 27, 1999) STS-110 (Apr. 8, 2002)
Susan J. Helms
United States STS-54 (Jan. 13, 1993) STS-64 (Sep. 9, 1994) STS-78 (Jun. 20, 1996) STS-101 (May 19, 2000) STS-102/105 (Mar. 8, 2001)
United States First African-American woman in space. STS-47 (Sep. 12, 1992)
United States STS-47 (Sep. 12, 1992) STS-60 (Feb. 3, 1994) STS-85 (Aug. 7, 1997)
Canada First Canadian woman in space. STS-42 (Jan. 22, 1992)
United States STS-40 (Jun. 5, 1991)
Tamara E. Jernigan
United States STS-40 (Jun. 5, 1991) STS-52 (Oct. 22, 1992) STS-67 (Mar. 2, 1995) STS-80 (Nov. 19, 1996) STS-96 (May 27, 1999)
United Kingdom First Briton in space. Soyuz TM-12/TM-11 (May 18, 1991)
Linda M. Godwin
United States STS-37 (Apr. 5, 1991) STS-59 (Apr. 9, 1994) STS-76 (Mar. 22, 1996) STS-108 (Dec. 5, 2001)
United States STS-32 (Jan. 9, 1990) STS-46 (Jul. 31, 1992) STS-62 (Mar. 4, 1994) STS-81 (Jan. 12, 1997) STS-98 (Feb. 7, 2001)
Kathryn C. Thorton
United States STS-33 (Nov. 22, 1989) STS-49 (May 7, 1992) STS-61 (Dec. 2, 1993) STS-73 (Oct. 20, 1995)
Ellen S. Baker
United States STS-34 (Oct. 18, 1989) STS-50 (Jun. 25, 1992) STS-71 (Jun. 27, 1995)
Mary L. Cleave
United States STS-61-B (Nov. 26, 1985) STS-30 (May 4, 1989)
Bonnie J. Dunbar
United States STS-61-A (Oct. 30, 1985) STS-32 (Jan. 9, 1990) STS-50 (Jun. 25, 1992) STS-71 (Jun. 27, 1995) STS-89 (Jan. 22, 1998)
United States STS-51-G (Jun. 17, 1985), STS-34 (Oct. 18, 1989) STS-43 (Aug. 2, 1991) STS-58 (Oct. 18, 1993) STS-76/79 (Mar. 22, 1996)
Margaret Rhea Seddon
United States STS-51-D (Apr. 12, 1985) STS-40 (Jun. 5, 1991) STS-58 (Oct. 18, 1993)