I had only been working for NOVA for a short time when I got the assignment to interview Sally Ride. I was working on a film called "Space Women" about the first three female astronauts, Ride, Judy Resnick, and Kathryn Sullivan. Sally Ride had become the first American woman in space as a crew member on Space Shuttle Challenger for STS-7 on June 18, 1983 and there was an outpouring of national pride and excitement surrounding her success.
Watch footage from Melanie Wallace's 1984 interview with Sally Ride.
When I contacted NASA to set up my interview, Sally Ride was deep in training for her second mission, which took off October 5, 1984 and landed seven days later on October 13. But a mere two weeks after Sally touched down at Kennedy Space Center, there she was to meet me.
Meeting Sally Ride was a lifetime thrill. Though I was a nervous wreck, she was relaxed and immediately put me and the crew at ease. She was articulate, funny, honest, and eager to share her enthusiasm for her job. Her passion for her profession and the camaraderie of her crewmates was contagious.
Yet what has stayed with me all these years is how she continually described working in space as fun--lots of fun. She said it was fun to be weightless and fun to go through reentry. Ride was an outrageously accomplished woman--in addition to being the first American woman in space, she was youngest astronaut to go into space, earned a PhD in physics, and was a tennis champion--yet she embraced her career as an astronaut with sheer, playful delight.
When I asked Ride about her long term goals--where did she see herself in five years?--I was surprised by her answer. She said she was not a very goal-oriented person and did not plan five years out. She was happy being an astronaut and planned on staying one for as long as NASA would have her. And I think she would have had a much longer career if not for the Challenger accident in 1986. She served on the Presidential Commission investigating the tragedy and resigned from NASA in 1987.
But NASA's loss was a gain for education, particularly science and math education, or STEM. In 2001 she founded her own company, Sally Ride Science, dedicated to her long-time passion for motivating young girls and boys to follow their love for science and consider careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. The company creates innovative classroom materials, classroom programs, and professional development training for teachers. Sally also initiated and directed NASA-funded education projects designed to fuel middle school students' fascination with science, including EarthKAM and GRAIL MoonKAM. She has also co-written seven science books for children.
The critical importance of science education resonates deeply with all of us at NOVA. Over our forty years on the air, we have had the privilege to witness pivotal moments in the history of science and exploration and to share those moments with our audience. It is part of our mission to preserve these stories for the future.
The inspirational legacy Sally Ride leaves behind is vast and multifaceted. Without seeking it out, she embraced her public persona as a role model for young girls and women who have a passion to succeed in science. When I heard last night that she had passed away after a battle with pancreatic cancer, my heart skipped a beat. Although I had only met her once, I felt as if I had lost a friend. Yet I know her legacy will continue through her organization and through all those who have been inspired by her.