Monday, July 23, 2012

Thank you, Sally Ride

…this nation should commit itself to the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon…
                                                                   -J. F. Kennedy, May 1961

Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, died today of pancreatic cancer, at 61 years old.  She was a pioneer and I would have given almost anything to be her.

That is me on the right-- with the helmet.
My very first career goal was to be an astronaut.  I remember watching the launches of the early Mercury and Gemini rockets on our big black and white console TV.  John Glenn was my first hero.   I was a child of the 60's, growing up under the influence of JFK’s grand vision to reach the moon.  It took NASA until 1969 to achieve that goal but my friends and I spent the summer of 1961 traveling to the moon every day.   I suspect my dad, hardly a proponent of feminism, bought this space helmet and built this  “control panel” complete with switches, lights and dials for my older brother, but nonetheless, I knew I too was destined for space.  A couple of lawn chairs completed our space ship and we needed nothing else to fulfill JFK’s master plan. I was a three and a half year old little girl, and these excursions are some of my earliest memories. 

The space program inspired my interest in science which lasted throughout my childhood.  Fickle, as children can be,  I next wanted to be a geologist.  While other little girls collected Barbies, I collected rocks, but by  high school I had all but forgotten about my “childhood” interest in things scientific.  I hated high school chemistry and math, probably because of a couple of genuinely bad teachers in those subjects.  If someone had told me, while I was still in high school, that I would end up as a research chemist, I would have thought they were eating some pretty crazy mushrooms (it was the 70's after all!)

So, I explored other options- music, writing, education- in fact, all things that interest and inspire me to this day.  But, I kept coming back to science. As a woman,  I was a bit of an anomaly 1970's and 1980's and in the early days of my career, it was not at all unusual for me to be the only pantyhose in a room full of pinstriped suits.  Things have changed.  Women are still underrepresented in engineering but are approaching parity in many of the sciences. 

We have the Sally Rides of the world to thank for that.  She endured a lot of pretty stupid people asking pretty stupid questions and handled them with grace.  ("Will you wear a bra in space?"  Seriously, someone asked her that!)  She inspired girls and to this day, as a astrophysicist (with an English double major), and an astronaut she still inspires me.

I thank you, Sally Ride.  We all do.

Today I am grateful for the  trailblazers, who remind us not to be limited by externally imposed standards.  More is possible than we can ever imagine.

 Space travel (the real thing, not science fiction) still captures my imagination and images from space can bring tears to my eyes. 

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