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Sally Ride, 61, Left Major Imprint on Space Program, Inspired Young Scientists

July 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Known for being the first American woman in space, Sally Ride dedicated her life to inspiring young people to engage in science, using space travel as a means to an educational end, rather than her own personal thrill ride. Judy Woodruff talks with science correspondent Miles O'Brien about Ride and her legacy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, remembering an American hero.

Sally Ride was an astronaut, physicist and champion of science. We start with a look back at her life and groundbreaking work.

SALLY RIDE, NASA astronaut: The moment of ignition, there’s absolutely nothing like it. There’s so much power, so much thunder. You know that something you have no control over at all is happening for the next eight-and-a-half minutes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was 1983, and Sally Ride made history as the first American woman in space. The first Russian woman had made it 20 years before. Ride reflected on the experience in a NASA interview 25 years after her mission.

SALLY RIDE: And I remember unstrapping from my seat, floating over to the window, and that’s when I got my first view of Earth. I could see coral reefs off the coast of Australia, huge storms swirling in the ocean. I could see an enormous dust storm building over Northern Africa and then starting its way across the North Atlantic toward us. Unbelievable sights.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ride was just 32 during that first flight, and she said at the time she thought her age was more important than her gender.

Sally Ride is to the shuttle era what Neil Armstrong is to the Apollo era, in many respects -- a high degree of fame, a great reserve, a privacy zone around them, and a desire to engage in the technicalities in the science, reveling in the science, and trying to share it as best they can for others.Miles O'Brien reflecting on the legacy of astronaut and physicist Sally Ride

SALLY RIDE: I guess that I was maybe more excited about getting a chance to fly early than I was about getting to be the first woman. I’m more excited about that opportunity than I am about being the — as you say, a footnote in history.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, by NASA had moved beyond the days when astronauts were drawn from the ranks of military test pilots. Ride was a physicist and one of the first six women chosen for the program.

SALLY RIDE: Our training has been no different. I really don’t think there’s been any distinction between the women astronauts and the men astronauts. So, from that point of view, it really hasn’t been hard.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ride made her second flight in 1984, but her third was canceled after the Challenger exploded in 1986. Instead, she was chosen for the investigative board looking into the Challenger disaster and again for the board that investigated the loss of Columbia in 2003.

After her NASA years, Ride focused on engaging young people, particularly girls, in science. In that 2008 NASA video, Ride promoted EarthKAM, an effort to put cameras on the space station, allowing middle-schoolers to take pictures from space.

SALLY RIDE: We provide a website that allows them to do all the appropriate calculations, figure out exactly when the station is going to be going over that part of the Earth and then command the camera to take a picture at that second.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Science education remained Sally Ride’s life work, until she was overcome by pancreatic cancer. She died Monday at her home in San Diego at the age of 61.

We explore Ride’s contribution to science and to our understanding of space with someone who knew her well, our own science correspondent, Miles O’Brien.


MILES O’BRIEN: Good to be here, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Miles, it sounds like she really thought too much was made of her being the first American woman in space.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes, I think, of course, the lead line in the obituary is first American woman in space.

But that’s such the tip of the iceberg for Sally Ride. She had such a string of accomplishments. And her imprint on the U.S. space program and space exploration in general is really hard to overstate. In addition to being a part of the two commissions which focused on the two losses of the space shuttle orbiters, she was also involved in the Augustine Commission report, which looked at the future of space most recently, and then in 1987, a report that’s been called the Ride report, which, if you read it today, applies to almost everything relating to NASA.

She saw the problem. She saw the issues, and she saw the opportunity of space, and for years and years beat that drumbeat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What did she love so much about space and about space exploration?

MILES O’BRIEN: You know, there are people who love space just for the thrill of the speed and adventure and altitude.

Sally Ride, I think, saw space as a means to an end. Her passion, her goal was to inspire young people to take on careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. When you’re 8 years old, you don’t want to be a waste management engineer. You want to be an astronaut, right?

And she understood that intuitively, that to get kids in the tent, inspiring them with space was the way to go. And she committed her — her post-NASA career was all about that, consistently and relentlessly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: She — as you pointed out, Miles, she was appointed to those two commissions investigating the two terrible shuttle accidents. And she was appointed to those — to the part of those groups looking at the future of space. Why was she chosen for those important jobs?

MILES O’BRIEN: She had a keen, analytical mind. Admittedly, a physicist, what does a physicist know about the engineering of why a shuttle might or might not crash?

But she had an intuitive sense, having been through the program and having flown, but in addition had a mind that was able to cut through a lot of that clutter and come to some significant conclusions in both cases. She — everybody I have talked to who worked with her on those commissions said she was a force of nature.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What did she want the space program to be?

MILES O’BRIEN: She wanted it to be a means of inspiring young people, in particular young girls. She saw that as the way.

That EarthKAM that we talked about, this fixed digital camera on the International Space Station…


MILES O’BRIEN: … young boys and middle school to this day can operate that camera themselves. It’s a tiny little thing, but it makes their minds really get a long way away from that classroom and the cinder blocks which might surround them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: She was — I was reading, she’s incredibly intelligent. She studied not just physics and astrophysics. She studied English. I guess, in graduate school, she was an accomplished athlete. She was a nationally ranked tennis player.


JUDY WOODRUFF: She was the whole package.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes, maybe she should become an astronaut. Oh, yeah, she did that, too.


MILES O’BRIEN: No, she really — I mean, when you — it’s interesting. Covering this beat and knowing astronauts as I do, it’s a constantly humbling thing, because you meet people like this, who in a seemingly effortless manner achieve success on several levels. And she was one of those extraordinary people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what is it about her interest in young people and young girls especially? Is it just that she fears that they’re — they don’t have other reasons to be interested to go in that direction?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, she grew up — it’s interesting.

You talk to most astronauts, and they, ever since I was six, I wanted to go to space. That wasn’t her. She looked at the stars and was interested. That led her to a career in physics and then, almost on a lark, she answered an ad when she was at Stanford University, which led her to Houston and the space program.

She didn’t have this burning desire to be in space. So, in that respect, she saw space as a tool as much as a thrill ride. And she never — she had good capability on the right brain, too. She was accomplished in English and she could communicate. She was able to engage people, even though she was off-the-charts smart on the technical side as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What was she like to be with?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, she was a reserved person. There was a privacy wall built around her.

It was only after her death that it became publicly known that, for many years, she — her significant other was a woman. And that was known within a certain circle, but she wanted to keep that as a private thing. As it was described by her sister, “We’re Norwegian. We don’t talk about these things.”

But if you engaged her on subjects she was interested in, specifically what we have been talking about, she was — it’s like she lit up like a solid rocket booster.

JUDY WOODRUFF: She didn’t — I read that she didn’t want her illness talked about. She didn’t talk about that.

MILES O’BRIEN: No. It was amazing within the circle of people I know how few people even knew about this right up until the very end. And that’s the way she wanted it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Miles, you spend so much time thinking about reporting on space. What is her legacy going to be?

MILES O’BRIEN: You know, I think her — I think Sally Ride’s legacy, of course, that milestone will always be there. She will be in the history books as the first American woman to space.

But I think what her legacy is, is that she took something that would have been enough for most of us, to just have that, and never stopped, had a tenacity and a focus which I think is commendable. That, to me, is as inspiring as strapping yourself to a shuttle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And not — it’s not fair to ask you to compare her to other astronauts, but how would you say she stands?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, I always say that Sally Ride is to the Apollo era what Neil Armstrong was — excuse me — Sally Ride is to the shuttle era what Neil Armstrong is to the Apollo era, in many respects, similar characters, a high degree of fame, a great reserve, a privacy zone around them, and a desire to engage in the technicalities in the science, reveling in the science, and trying to share it as best they can for others.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Miles O’Brien, our science correspondent, thank you.

MILES O’BRIEN: Pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A big loss.

MILES O’BRIEN: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Roger Mudd reported on Sally Ride’s departure from NASA in 1987 on the NewsHour. You can watch that video on our website. Also there, the NASA video with Ride’s own reflections on her shuttle flights and space exploration, recorded 25 years after her first flight.