Does anyone else remember the days in primary school when every second kid wanted to grow up to be an astronaut? It seems that everyone has looked up at the night sky and wondered what it would be like to experience the marvels of space, but finding someone who actually has is a lot harder!
My obsession with space began at age 5 when my family visited the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney and I walked inside the life sized replica a space shuttle’s front section. I then returned home to fill my sketch books with these amazing “space aeroplanes” that I had learnt about at the museum, hoping one day I might be able to fly through outer space and float under zero gravity.
Needless to say, I have become a lot more grounded these days, but to the first American female astronaut, Sally Ride, the lure of space proved far stronger than any attraction on earth. Not only was she the youngest person ever to travel into space at the time of her first space shuttle mission, Ride also founded NASA’s Office of Exploration, published multiple books on space and even created the Sally Ride Science Program to encourage young people to follow their dreams to the moon and back (quite literally!). We think that’s pretty inspirational.
But this wasn’t always the case. When Ride was in high school, she was far more focused on pursuing her skill in tennis rather than science, and would spend many weekends travelling across the country to compete in junior tournaments, ranking 18th across the United States by the time she reached her junior year of high school. She even interrupted her final year of schooling at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania to devote all her time into becoming a professional tennis player. After a few months, however, she changed her mind and decided to follow her passion in physics instead. And we’re glad she did, because rather than joining the multitudes of professional tennis stars out there, she won herself a place in history and has been a role model to not only the women of NASA who followed her pioneering journey, but countless girls and women around the world.
So she headed back to her home in California to study her Bachelor degrees in English and Physics at Stanford University, which were shortly followed by a Masters of Science and finally a PH.D in Physics. Even after all this, she had never seriously considered becoming an astronaut and was planning on becoming a Physics Professor. In 1977, towards the end of her doctorate, she came across an ad saying NASA was allowing women to apply for space flight training for the first time in history. She immediately decided to apply. Soon, Ride discovered that she had been chosen as one of six women selected from thousands of applicants to become the first female astronauts.
After a few years of training she was eventually selected to work on the ground crew for the second ever space shuttle mission in 1981, however it wasn’t until 1983 that Ride, now aged 32, was chosen to join the crew of a space shuttle. Employed as a mission specialist, Ride was required to control the space shuttle’s robotic arm as the crew deployed and retrieved satellites on mission STS 7 aboard the Challenger. The mission was launched from the Kennedy Space Centre on the 18th of June and spent six days orbiting the Earth while the 5 astronauts within the shuttle conducted scientific experiments.
“when the space shuttle's engines cut off, and you're finally in space, in orbit, weightless... I remember unstrapping from my seat, floating over to the window, and that's when I got my first view of Earth. Just a spectacular view, and a chance to see our planet as a planet.”
Upon returning to earth, she was now faced with the huge responsibility and media wave of being the first American woman to have traveled to space, a responsibility that that she took great care in. “I never went into physics or the astronaut corps to be a role model,” she told the Harvard Business Review, “but after my first flight it was clear that I was one. And I began to understand the importance of that”. It was this reason that she became increasingly involved in education, and after retiring from NASA in 1987, she continued to work tirelessly to bring the world of science and space to students. She instigated the ISS EarthKAM project in 1996 so middle school students could capture photos of space from the comfort of their class room via a camera mounted on the International Space Station. Then in 2001 she and her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, founded the school based program Sally Ride Science to better inform students about their potential to follow a career in science.
She told the Harvard Business Review that “it became important to me to create programs that helped keep students– particularly young girls– engaged in science and math as they were going through middle school and onto high school. So they didn’t turn away from those subjects too early and basically limit their options as they went on into college”.
“Studying whether there's life on Mars or studying how the universe began, there's something magical about pushing back the frontiers of knowledge,” she said, “that's something that is almost part of being human, and I'm certain that will continue”.
One thing that is for certain, though, is despite her death in 2012, Sally Ride’s legacy will live on through the young people inspired by her incredible journey. “Sally’s life showed us that there are no limits to what we can achieve,” President Obama stated, “she will be missed, but her star will always shine brightly”.
If you want to find out more about Sally Ride, the first American women to travel to space, then make sure you check out these websites:
Sally Ride Science Program: https://sallyridescience.ucsd.edu/
Her first mission to space: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/shuttle/shuttlemissions/archives/sts-7.html