If you were a child in the ’80s or ’90s, you knew Sally Ride.
By 1963, Russia had launched a woman into space, but America lagged behind. Space travel, like so many occupations, remained a (white) boys club. There were strange, unfounded claims holding women back — women were too emotional for space travel, for example, or menstruation in microgravity was dangerous, according to NPR’s Skunkbear.
NASA has since come a long way in terms of gender equality. The makeup of the New Horizons mission is a great example.
And Sally Ride, who on June 16, 1983, became the first American woman in space, played an invaluable role in this progress. She taught millions of American young girls — and at least one black boy growing up outside Atlanta (me) — that their dreams, nay the stars, could reached by learning science.
Behind the icon was a person with private and public passions. And a new photobiography by Tam O’Shaughnessy, Ride’s life and business partner of 27 years, offers an intimate view into that life. PBS NewsHour recently spoke with the O’Shaughnessy about the book. An excerpt of our conversation along with some photos from the book are below.
Nsikan Akpan: Describe Sally Ride as a child.
Tam O’Shaughnessy: She was close to her mom and her dad. Sally has one sister, Karen, but she goes by Bear. Sally was two when Bear was born and she couldn’t pronounce her name, so she called her Pear or Perry, and then it kind of morphed into Bear. Bear just stuck.
Joyce Ride, Sally’s mother, loves the church and is kind of an introvert — quiet and thoughtful. Bear is more that way and less athletic. Dale Ride, Sally’s father, loves sports, so I think that they kind of naturally…Sally went with her father and Bear with her mother to do things.
Joyce and Dale never fought. If they had an issue, they wouldn’t talk about it or confront it, so Sally kind of learned to keep her emotions buried. And to not really talk about her feelings, and that kind of stayed with her her whole life, which is a plus in some ways and a negative in other ways.
Her parents are very neat people, and they created a very stable loving home. But I would say that part of Sally’s personality, just like all of ours, gets shaped by her parents.
Nsikan Akpan: Were Bear and Sally close?
Tam O’Shaughnessy:They were very close. When Bear and Sally were young, Bear tended to copy her older sister. I think that’s common, because they were two years apart.
I’ve seen family films when the girls were very young, and Sally was always moving forward, you know, toward people and toward animals, and Bear was kind of holding back and following Sally.
Nsikan Akpan: What did Sally do for fun?
Tam O’Shaughnessy: Sally was very physical. She loved the outdoors. She was very curious.
Sports were important to her throughout her whole life.
Her grandfather taught her how to play baseball, and he sawed off a little bat for her and taught her how to play catch. She maintained that she loved the Dodgers her whole life.
Her father took her to UCLA basketball games and football games. Because her father helped students transfer from Santa Monica City College to UCLA, they got special privileges and were able to talk to Coach Wooden and be down on the football field with the football players during practices.
Even though she went to Stanford and got her undergraduate and graduate degrees at Stanford, if Stanford was playing UCLA, she rooted for UCLA. That childhood loyalty just never went away.
Nsikan Akpan: How did you and Sally meet?
Tam O’Shaughnessy: Sally started playing tennis when she was 10. Her father drove her to all the junior tournaments
I was standing in the line with a group of kids — boys and girls. We were all in our white tennis shorts and tennis skirts, waiting to check in at the tournament desk. And I saw this girl ahead of me in line, and what I noticed about her is she had long blond hair, straight blond hair, but she was standing on her toes, and it just looked funny to me.
I was like, ‘What is she doing?’ because she was standing up on her toes, even when we were shuffling forward in line. It was sort of like a ballet dance, and I just thought, “How funny.” And then I recognized that it was Sally Ride, this kid that I had seen at other tournaments but just never spoken to. I was 12, and she was 13.
She was a good athlete and a very good tennis player. Because she was good at tennis, that helped her get into one of the best all-girls schools for high school. The teachers in the school also liked her intellectual ability, but it was really the tennis that enabled the scholarship.
The same thing was true when she went to college. She got into Swarthmore. Played number one on the tennis team. Played on the basketball team. Played on the field hockey team.
She was at Swarthmore for a year and a half, and called home and said, “I don’t want to be here. There’s too much snow.” She came home and took summer classes at UCLA and really worked hard on her tennis.
Her tennis helped her once again get into Stanford. She played number one on the Stanford team.
When Sally first went to Stanford, she was 20. She skipped a grade, so she was a little younger. She was a junior, and she got a job teaching tennis in the summer at Tennis America in Lake Tahoe, which was created by Billie Jean King and her husband Larry King.
[One day] they set up an exhibition where Sally played with Dennis Van der Meer, this very famous tennis coach, against Billie Jean and another guy.
I think that’s the first time that they formally met, and Billy Jean said, “Hey you’re pretty darn good; if you work hard enough, you could be on the pro tour.”
Nsikan Akpan: What was her experience at Stanford?
Tam O’Shaughnessy: She took physics courses. She was a never a straight-A student, but she certainly did well. But she was also playing volleyball for three to four hours everyday. She fell in love for the first time. A lot of typical undergraduate stuff happened to her.
She was a very easygoing human being. Funny, fun, and smart. She was a person, who, on one hand, you could just sit and do nothing with, and she’d be perfectly happy and you’d be perfectly comfortable, but if you wanted to talk about something interesting, then she’d be a good person to dive into a conversation with and be engaged with.
Nsikan Akpan: How did she learn about NASA’s search for female astronauts?
Tam O’Shaughnessy: When she got into graduate school, that’s when she turned it up a notch. I remember her telling me when she was taking very high-level math classes that it was so dry and dead, until she started applying it. In science, we all have that experience where you finally get why you learn this stuff and how cool it is and how important it is. Then she just loved it.
She was imagining becoming a physics professor, and getting a job somewhere in California and living out her life doing research and writing and teaching students.
When she was a year away from finishing her doctorate, she saw an ad in the student paper about NASA recruiting women for the first time in history. Something happened inside her. It was one of those moments. This was another part of Sally being easygoing. She always left room in her life to change direction and to follow her heart.
She was accepted into the astronaut corps at the end of 1977, and she started after she turned in her dissertation.
She started in the summer of 1978. Her class had 35 new rookies. And six of them were the first women in history to be astronauts at NASA.
They had to learn about every system, every part of the space shuttle. They also learned a lot about geology, because when you’re in space, it’s a great opportunity to look back at Earth, and then you need to know what you’re looking at and recognize little wiggles in the ocean.
Nsikan Akpan: What was Sally’s favorite part of becoming an astronaut?
Tam O’Shaughnessy: Sally loved flying in T-38 jets. They’re little two-seaters. They’re like little mosquitoes and they go really fast. She and her then husband Steve Hawley, who was also an astronaut, leased with their friends a small Cessna. They liked flying on the weekends. In fact, Sally flew Steve to their wedding. She loved flying.
They did jumping out of airplanes in parachutes and learning how to safely land and roll. They did water survival. They did the giant centrifuges. That was pure fun — they got to just really be kids again.
Nsikan Akpan: Did she ever talk about her time in space?
Tam O’Shaughnessy: I’ve heard her talk about it a million times. She loved the whole adventure. She said launch is terrifying because you have … you’re out of control. It either works or it doesn’t. You have tons of rocket fuel literally exploding beneath you, and you’re just going up. It’s just eight minutes of terror, but also exhilarating.
Once she hit outer space 50 miles up, suddenly her necklace would float up in front of her face and all the G-forces would suddenly stop, and she was floating. She loved weightlessness.
The other thing that happened was looking out the little shuttle windows back at Earth. It really changed Sally. It made her appreciate that we really do live on a planet; it’s very fragile. It made her an environmentalist.
Nsikan Akpan: What was life like when she landed? She had a tough time with the attention, right?
Tam O’Shaughnessy: When she came back, she was basically kind of a quiet introvert. She had a hard time with people recognizing her. She couldn’t go anywhere. In Houston, going to the grocery store, going for a run around the neighborhood, people were pointing at her, stopping her and wanting to touch her, wanting to take photographs, and she just didn’t like it.
For the first time in her life — it was amazing that Sally thought of this because of how she was as a human being — she realized that she needed help, so she saw a psychologist back in Palo Alto just to figure out how to help herself. The psychologist helped her [by saying], “You need to take more time after giving talks and going to banquets. You need to do fewer of them, and just take better care of yourself, so you can recover.”
[The fame] was hard for Sally but at the same time, she was happy to be the one chosen to be the first American [woman in space], and she totally appreciated that it would make her life, that it would give her opportunities that even the other female astronauts wouldn’t have.
Nsikan Akpan: Eventually Sally retired from NASA and became a physics professor. You were a psychology professor, but as a side profession together, you began writing children’s science books. Why?
Tam O’Shaughnessy: It came about because we both loved books. No matter where we were in the country, we’d go to bookstores. We’d always go to the science sections, mystery sections, but usually we’d end up in the children’s section.
We noticed that the kids departments had huge fiction sections, and just this little dinky non-fiction section with very few science books. And when we looked at the science books, there were errors.
Sally had written a book about going into space — To Space and Back — with her high school friend Sue Okie in 1986. We just decided, let’s try to make books that are really fun, engaging and scientifically accurate. We just kind of got started and kept doing it.
Our world has become much more sophisticated with technology in science and math. Now, math and technology are part of all the sciences, and you really need to be pretty savvy about all of this stuff.
Our whole society has become much more science-, math- and technology-based, so to get almost any decent job, you have to have a decent background. We just kind of recognized that it’s an equity issue. All kids deserve to know math and science.
Nsikan Akpan: Finally, Sally was internationally renowned, but as your book portrays in lovely detail, she was just a regular person with hobbies and a deep passion for science. With that in mind, what did Sally mean to you, and what did Sally mean for a generation of young scientists? What lessons can young scientists take away from her life?
Tam O’Shaughnessy: I hope what young people realize who read not just my book, but learn about Sally or hear about Sally from their teachers or parents or whomever, is that science and learning is something that’s fun and fulfilling and can take you places, but also that your life doesn’t just need to be one note.
Sally had many things that she enjoyed and that she was good at, and they all helped make her who she was and kind of a content, happy human being.
Just follow your heart and do what you enjoy. Sally was a perfect role model for that.
Editor’s note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.