Sally Ride: She Understood How Cool Science Could Be

All you wanna do is ride around Sally, ride, Sally, ride.
But one of these early mornings,
You gonna be wiping your weeping eyes.

Sally Ride died today at the age of 61 after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. It certainly wouldn't be difficult to argue that--as the first woman in space, as a physicist, as an educator and leader--she did as much as anyone to encourage young women to enter science and technology fields.

“Sally was a personal and professional role model to me and thousands of women around the world,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver in a statement of condolence put out by NASA today. “Her spirit and determination will continue to be an inspiration for women everywhere.”

Close to finishing her Ph.D. in physics, Ride applied to be an astronaut in 1977 when she saw an ad from NASA looking for scientists and engineers for positions that had traditionally been filled by military test pilots. Astronauts had also always been men. One of the 35 chosen (six of which were women) out of some 8,000 applicants, Ride made history as the first woman to go into orbit, blasting off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 18, 1983, aboard the space shuttle Challenger.

She went up again in October 1984, but her third mission was aborted in January 1986 after the Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff, killing all seven aboard.

Ride founded NASA’s Office of Exploration and directed its early strategy, and later became a physics professor at the University of California San Diego and director of the California Space Institute. In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science, which motivates young girls and boys to stick with their interests in science and to consider pursuing STEM careers. The company creates innovative classroom materials and programs, and professional development training for teachers.

Ride marveled in one interview at how fun that space shuttle flight was. “In fact, I’m sure it was the most fun I’ll ever have in my life,” she said. If that doesn’t get kids interested in science, what will?

I love that Ride understood how important it was to really excite kids about science and technology careers. In a 2006 interview with USA Today about why girls don’t pursue math and science degrees, and what could be done about that, she had this to say: “I’d introduce her to the coolest female engineer in the company. Girls tend to have a stereotype of engineers being 65-year-old guys who wear lab coats and pocket protectors and look like Einstein. Try to make it personal to them and show them some of the cool things that they can do in engineering.”

One of the coolest things she could’ve done, in my opinion, was to include herself among the bevy of greats appearing on Sesame Street. In one 13 second bit, she encourages kids to follow their dreams—and learn the alphabet: