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Honoring Sally Ride’s Legacy as Scientist, Trailblazer, Educational Role Model

May 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
President Barack Obama announced he would posthumously award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sally Ride, the first woman in space. NewsHour's science correspondent Miles O'Brien reflects on Ride's legacy and her impact as an educator who encouraged young women to study science, technology, engineering and math.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally tonight, the legacy of Sally Ride.

Yesterday, President Obama announced he would confer the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, on a woman remembered as a pioneer in space travel and an educator and role model for women in the sciences.

It was 1983 when Sally Ride made history as the first American woman in space. Ride was just 32 at the time, and she said then that she thought her age was more important than her gender.

DR. SALLY RIDE, Former NASA Astronaut: 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ride was a physicist and one of the first six women chosen for the program. She would fly into space again a year later.

But when her flying days were over, she continued to play an important role in the space program. She served on two investigative boards that examined what went wrong in the Challenger and Columbia disasters. And after her NASA years, Ride focused on engaging young people in science, particularly girls and women.

In a 2008 video, she 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: Science education remained Sally Ride’s life’s work until she was overcome by pancreatic cancer last July at the age of 61.

A celebration of the life and work of Sally Ride was held last night at the Kennedy Center here in Washington.

Our own science correspondent, Miles O’Brien, who knew Ride, served as the emcee.

I talked with him yesterday just before the event.

Welcome, Miles.

MILES O’BRIEN: Good to be here, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was she aware, Sally Ride aware of being a pioneer and did she feel that responsibility?

MILES O’BRIEN: Responsibility, and she had a lot of discomfort with it. You know, it’s interesting. She went into space for the adventure and never really intended to become part of the mythology.

You know, I think we use the term hero in our culture. And there are very few people that actually fully qualify. I think she does qualify because of what she accomplished and the inspiration she gave others. But she was always reluctant to bask in that. The fame was something she saw as a two-edged sword. It allowed her to get some phone calls answered, got her in — through some doors, but she was never comfortable with the adulation that came along with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Describe a little bit more of her wider impact on the space program, right? Because it went even beyond the ride that she did.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes, it wasn’t just the ride.

JEFFREY BROWN: Or rise. Yes.

MILES O’BRIEN: It wasn’t just the ride.

That’s a great way of putting it. For her, the ride was part of the larger picture for her. She had a tremendous passion for science and the role that women can play in it and really set about to be an inspiration to girls everywhere and did this with her Sally Ride Science program and other programs she got involved in to try to get young girls interested in the STEM fields, as we call it, science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

That was her life mission. You talk to a lot of astronauts, and their mission is to go space.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

MILES O’BRIEN: For her, space was just a springboard for something else.

JEFFREY BROWN: And where did that come from?

MILES O’BRIEN: You know, I think she just — for some people, it’s about the ride. It’s about the speed.

For her, there was something deeper ingrained in her. I think she had the real sense of a desire to achieve and a desire for women to be on an equal playing field with men, especially when it came to these technical fields, where there’s huge discrepancy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so tell us a little bit how spent her years after — after the shuttle experiences, particularly trying to invoke — I mean, instill these STEM subjects.

MILES O’BRIEN: She was all about education and finding ways to inspire young people, particularly girls.

And she did it in interesting ways, by having cameras in space that allowed kids to participate and be a part of it, by giving them the ability to be a part of science fairs that allowed them to build things and think of ideas and dream great things. She reached a lot of young people by doing this. Of course, the problem is so much bigger than one person. But she committed her life that.

And in addition to that, she became a very sage presence at NASA. She was NASA’s conscience, in many ways.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, explain — explain that. And part of it was the disasters, when she served on the investigative commissions. Right?

MILES O’BRIEN: Right. I mean, she served on both commissions, post-Challenger, post-Colombia.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

MILES O’BRIEN: That right there says something about the respect that she held.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

MILES O’BRIEN: Any time the administrator’s job came open, she was always on the short list to run it. She never had any interest in any of that.

But it was very important to her that those — in the wake of those accidents, that NASA get it right for the future, not — she knew it was dangerous, but she knew that space — it was important to stay in space to continue that engagement with young people.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, when you say conscience of NASA, it’s that and it’s that kind of thing?

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes. You know, it’s interesting.

I always think of her — Neil Armstrong was always thought of as the most cerebral of the Apollo astronauts.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

MILES O’BRIEN: I think of Sally Ride as the Neil Armstrong of her era …

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

MILES O’BRIEN: … the most cerebral of that vintage of shuttle astronauts who thought about space as a means to talking about much larger things, if that is possible.

Is there something larger than space? I don’t know.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, it’s interesting, looking at the little setup piece, you forget how young she was when she went up and the excitement that she talks about, not being a woman, but just getting up so young.

MILES O’BRIEN: Right. Yes.

Yes, I think it’s — you know, as I say, I think she wasn’t exactly ready for that, for the kind of embrace that she got by the American public. And guess what? Here’s a reality check for us. It’s going to be the 30-year anniversary coming next month for that flight.

JEFFREY BROWN: Wow. Wow.

MILES O’BRIEN: Hard to imagine how much our country has — how much we have come and gone since then.

Interestingly, though, that issue that she’s cared so much about, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education, remains a problem. And that discrepancy only continues to grow among men and women. So there’s still work to be done.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, as a person, you knew her. I mean, you said that she didn’t — she didn’t seek the spotlight.

MILES O’BRIEN: She was a determined person.

JEFFREY BROWN: Determined.

MILES O’BRIEN: When she called …

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

MILES O’BRIEN: … and she would call frequently — there wasn’t much time for small talk.

She was on a mission always. And she wanted to talk about things that were important to her. And I had the good fortune to have her in my house. And I confided in her at the time that I had been — worked out a deal to fly to space on the shuttle and go to the International Space Station at that time with CNN.

And she didn’t miss a beat. She started talking about all the ways we could partner together to help out young people that she cared so dearly about.

MILES O’BRIEN: So it was always moving forward for her.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Miles O’Brien on the life and work of Sally Ride, thanks so much.

MILES O’BRIEN: You’re welcome, Jeff.