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."
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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.
Sally Ride almost chose to pursue a career in tennis rather than science. As a junior at Westlake High School, she ranked nationally and led the tennis team when she attended Stanford for college. Sally even met tennis pro Billie Jean King, who is rumored to have encouraged her to pursue the sport in her 20s.
Sally was one of 8,000 to answer a newspaper listing seeking applicants for NASA's space program. As a result, she joined NASA in 1978 along with five other women female astronaut candidates. The above six women, from left to right, Shannon W. Lucid, Margaret Rhea Seddon, Kathryn D. Sullivan, Judith A. Resnik, Anna L. Fisher and Sally, were the first to enroll in a NASA training program, which they completed in August, 1979.
When astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman to go into space, she took along with her a cover of Ms. on which she appeared. That cover was subsequently donated to the Smithsonian Institution. Early in the 1970s, Ms. published a major story on women who were qualified but were rejected when they applied to be astronauts. Here, Sally is seen with editors Pat Carbine, Gloria Steinem and Joanne Edgar.
Sally Ride joined NASA in 1978 and became the first American woman to enter space in 1983. At that time, Sally was a mere 32 years old, making her the youngest person to ever enter space to date. Here, Sally communicates with ground controllers form the flight deck during the six-day mission onboard the Challenger.
On June 18th, 1983 Sally first went in to space as a mission specialist on the Space Shuttle Challenger. Prior to her first outer space journey Sally served as the ground-base communicator for NASA's second and third space shuttle flights. She was also responsible for developing the first space shuttle robot arm, which she would later use to retrieve a satellite in space.
Over the course of her career at NASA, Sally spent more than 343 hours in space. On her first trip aboard the Challenger in 1983, Sally and the rest of the five-person crew deployed two communications satellites and conducted pharmaceutical experiments. Here, Sally monitors control panels from the pilot's chair on the shuttle's flight deck.
By 1984, less than a year after becoming the first American woman in space, Sally had swung open the doors of NASA for other women to follow. Here, the crew of the STS-41G poses on deck of the Challenger in 1984. In the front row, from left to right, Jon A. McBride; Sally, Kathryn D. Sullivan and David C. Leestma; and in the back row from left to right, Paul D. Scully-Power; Robert L. Crippen; and Marc Garneau.
After NASA, Sally turned to a career in education. She served as the director of the California Space Institute at University of California, San Diego and also served as a physics professor.
In 2001, Sally founded the Sally Ride Science foundation, which aims to "bring science to life" for children, and change society's perception about girls working in technical fields. The foundation offers a wealth of programs and activities designed to make math, science and technology fun for kids.
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