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Sally Ride: Reaching for the Stars

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I once interviewed astronaut Sally Ride about her remarkable achievement in being the first American women to voyage into space. She was modest, of course, speaking about it as if anyone could climb on top of 30 stories of gleaming rocket, then ride 7 million pounds of thrust into the deep blue horizons above Earth.

When I pressed a little further, asking her to describe the most important thing anyone had ever said to her -- words that might have encouraged her to pursue her legendary career -- she thought for a moment, then said: "When I was a young girl, my father once told me, 'You have to reach for the stars.'"

Sally Ride, who died on Monday at the age of 61, after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer, didn't just reach for the stars, she became one -- and not the kind who signs autographs and gets fan mail (though there was plenty of that, to be sure). Instead, Sally took her rightful place in the rare galaxy of America heroes who would come to represent the courage and adventurousness that are the hallmarks of our nation.

I vividly remember that overcast morning in June of 1983, when Sally, NASA's youngest astronaut, was strapped into her seat aboard the space shuttle Challenger, then soared into the history books. How proud we all were of that historic achievement. How inspired she made us feel as women. And how we all cheered when her mother, Joyce, said to the assembled reporters, "Thank God for Gloria Steinem."

"Millions of little girls are going to sit by their television sets and see they can be astronauts, heroes, explorers and scientists," Steinem said the next day. Across the country, girls and women were galvanized by this new giant step for the space program -- and for America. And Sally was honored to have become a role model for women everywhere. Earlier in the year she had appeared on the cover of Ms. magazine -- and she took that magazine with her into space. What a message she sent to all of us.

But more than just a standard-bearer for the women's movement -- more than just a legend within the space program -- Sally Ride was a living testament to the passion and gustiness and invincibility of the human spirit.

On my desk, next to a picture of my father, I keep a copy of the classic children's book, The Little Prince, and I frequently turn to the page that bears my favorite quote -- in which the Prince says, "In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing when you look at the sky at night."

Now, when we look at the sky at night, we can remember Sally Ride. And we can say, with admiration and love, "You earned your place in the heavens, Sally. Farewell, we will miss you."

* * *

Here is the complete text to my interview with Sally Ride, which appeared as a first-person essay in my book, "The Right Words at the Right Time." I hope you enjoy it.

To this day I remember a simple line my father Dale Ride told me one afternoon when I came home from school, somewhat despondent. I hadn't said anything to him about my mood, but he sensed I was down. It was early on, during my years at West Lake High School in Los Angeles. Now, what he said may not seem earth-shattering; in fact, I'm sure it's a line everyone has heard, but somehow what he said to me that day not only bolstered my confidence then, it stays with me even now.

Like a lot of kids in high school, I was suffering through a loss of self-esteem; I had no confidence in myself whatsoever. I felt that all my friends were much smarter. This is not to say I was ever taunted. It was just a building sense of insecurity and anxiety that I'm sure a lot of kids go through.

So after school one day I came home and was obviously still in the down mood well into the evening. My father was one of my biggest supporters. He always tried to motivate me and, more important, get me to set my goals high. So, this one day, we just started having a casual conversation. Then in the middle of it, he just said, "You know, you have to reach for the stars."

That instant, the phrase hit me. This was long before I had any aspirations to be an astronaut - I had no notion at all of NASA or anything related to space. Certainly, even at that age, I was really interested in science, but I was equally passionate about tennis and already had a place on the U.S. junior circuit. What that phrase clarified for me was that whatever you were doing you have to reach for the top.

Some years later I dropped out of college to pursue the dream of being a professional tennis player. I did well and worked hard, but after a while I realized that I would never be a top-ranked player. I would never reach the stars by that path. So I returned to my other love - science - ultimately getting my Ph.D. in astrophysics and landing a spot in the space program.

It is, of course, possible that my father's phrase planted an idea in my subconscious. It may very well have helped shape my aspirations - and my becoming the first American woman to go into space. The words still have the power to stop me dead in my tracks and make me reevaluate my attitude toward myself and my abilities.

I try to pass on these words and the idea behind them, of never limiting your visions for yourself, and always recognizing that a person can reach the pinnacle of any profession or avocation she chooses, if she is willing to keep fighting for her vision. I like to especially emphasize to girls and young women growing up today the idea that there is a world of opportunities out there for them, but that it is ultimately up to them to establish their goals, to set their sights as high as they wish, as high as the stars, and then stay focused and determined and make them a reality.

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