Sally Ride joined NASA in 1978, one of NASA’s first six female astronauts, and began spaceflight training in 1978. In 1983, she became the first American woman in space, and as far as I know, the first LGBTQ person to orbit the planet. She was the third woman to go into space; of course the Russians were first, with cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova (1963) and Svetlana Savitskaya (1982). Ride remains the youngest American to have traveled to space, at 32-years-old. She flew twice on the Challenger, and then Ride left NASA in 1987. She remains the only known LGBTQ person to have flown in space, but don’t let the queens know that.
Last year, the United States Postal Service (USPS) unveiled a forever stamp honoring Ride. The ceremony, held at the UCSD campus, featured Ride’s family and friends, including her partner in life and business, the deliciously named Tam O’Shaughnessy, plus astronaut and Director of the Johnson Space Center Ellen Ochoa and tennis legend and LGBTQ activist Billie Jean King.
Billie Jean King
It’s amazing the impact and the long-lasting impact that Sally Ride’s going to have, and the stamp, this forever stamp, will be a big help.”
Ride was taken by cancer in 2012. After her passing, a single line in Ride’s obituaries caused much ado. The world was shocked by the fact that Ride had spent the last 27 years of her life in a relationship with another woman. Yes, Sally Ride, astronaut, theoretical astrophysicist, American Hero and Feminist Icon, was a lesbian!
It was too bad that the public revelation that caused such a fuss took away from the legacy that Ride had worked her whole life for: pushing young women into careers in math and science. Ride embraced that legacy, starting a company that provided materials to make the teaching of science more accessible to young female students.
Ride’s gayness was not a secret to her friends and family, but to the public who knew her only as the woman in a NASA jumpsuit, with her soft halo of 1980s hair, it was a revelation.
Ride spoke out about the problem of peer pressure and norms of socialization that led girls away from studying math and science at an early age. In a 2003 interview in The New York Times, Ride said:
It’s no secret that I’ve been reluctant to use my name for things. I haven’t written my memoirs or let the television movie be made about my life. But this is something I’m very willing to put my name behind.
Ride’s obituaries were mostly a list of her considerable accomplishments: two PhDs, being accepted into NASA, her historic flights, and a professional-level ability in tennis (according to King). She led a life of professional excellence, and she attracted national attention, yet she remained a private person. From everything I have read about her, it doesn’t seem that Ride was ashamed of being gay, she just seemed to think that it didn’t matter much. She probably thought that publicly coming out of the closet would mean talking about her personal life when she had so many other things to say.
What Ride said in 1984, talking about her historic flight, probably sums it up best:
It’s too bad this is such a big deal. It’s too bad our society isn’t further along.
For all the girl-power that Ride brought to society, one barrier the first American woman in space chose not to break was sexuality, plus when she became the first woman in space, she was married to a dude, astronaut Steve Hawley. They divorced in 1987. Hawley:
Sally was a very private person who found herself a very public persona. It was a role in which she was never fully comfortable. I was privileged to be a part of her life and be in a position to support her as she became the first American woman to fly in space.
When she died, one of my friends on The Facebook wrote: “That lady astronaut was gay!”.
Ride’s partner O’Shaughnessy is a former professional tennis player and a professor of Psychology at San Diego State University. She and Ride wrote several children’s science books together, and O’Shaughnessy is now CEO of Ride’s company, Sally Ride Science, where girls receive encouragement to learn about engineering, math, science and technology.
She didn’t have an easy ride into space with all that media scrutiny. Reporters asked her if she would wear a bra into space. Others asked if she planned on having children. Ride hated that she was asked such sexist questions at NASA news conferences while her male counterparts weren’t.
Ride may have had to put up with those sorts of questions in the 1980s, but the attitudes in the decade also shielded the shy astronaut. She wasn’t politicized then. She was’’t obsessed over in the press. In death, Ride became politicized. LGBTQ activists were outraged that O’Shaughnessy could not receive Ride’s federal benefits because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
Ride would have been a very reluctant Gay Icon. Yet, it would have been cool if Ride had been able to be a guest on Ellen and talk about O’Shaughnessy while the host chatted about her own wife.
O’Shaughnessy wrote that Ride would not be okay with the new anti-LGBTQ, anti-fact NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, whom the Senate confirmed last year right down a party-line vote of 50-49. O’Shaughnessy:
I think Sally would have been shaking her head in dismay during the Senate confirmation vote last week. She would have been skeptical about Bridenstine serving with honor as NASA administrator. His public record shows he is anti-science based on his misinterpretation and misrepresentation of global climate change. His public statements show that he does not believe in social justice based on his views of marriage equality for same-sex couples.
A three-term member of Congress from Oklahoma who earned a “0” rating from the Human Rights Campaign on its most recent scorecard, Bridenstine co-sponsored legislation against same-sex marriage and called the SCOTUS ruling in favor of Marriage Equality “a disappointment”. In 2013, when the Boy Scouts of America lifted its ban on gay youths, Bridenstine delivered a blistering speech on the House floor in opposition to the change, suggesting LGBTQ people are immoral.
Typically, NASA administrators are chosen from within NASA’s ranks or the military or have a background in science. Bridenstine has none of that. His qualifications: he once ran the Air and Space Museum in Tulsa and he sucked POTUS’ dick.
Bridenstine plans on shuttering NASA’s Education Department. On Climate Change, Bridenstine has denied that human actions are responsible for increasing global temperatures.
Sally believed NASA should study our home planet just as it studies the rest of the solar system — and educate the public about how human activities like burning fossil fuels are changing the air, making the global climate warm. Sally also valued people from all walks of life and all ways of living and loving.
After Ride left us for the cosmos, NASA named a spot on the Moon after her, the U.S. Navy named a research ship for her, and President Barack Obama posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor, in November 2013. The medal was presented to O’Shaughnessy. Obama:
As the first American woman in space, Sally did not just break the stratospheric glass ceiling, she blasted through it. And when she came back to Earth, she devoted her life to helping girls excel in fields like math, science and engineering.
Ride was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fameand was awarded the NASA Space Flight Medal twice. She was the only person to serve on both of the panels investigating the Challenger accident and the Columbia disaster. Two elementary schools in the United States are named after her.
Queer artist Janelle Monáe released a song called Sally Ride (2013). On her birthday in 2013, a National Tribute To Sally Ride was held at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in 2007, a “Women of NASA” LEGO set went on sale featuring (among other things) action figures of Ride and other women of NASA.
NASA has made huge strides since 1978 when Sally became one of 35 new astronauts, including the first six women, to embrace diversity and inclusion no matter one’s race, color, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.