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Life of Sally Ride Honored at Kennedy Center Tribute

American astronaut Sally Ride monitors control panels from the pilot’s chair on the flight deck in 1983. Photo by Apic/Getty Images.

*Editor’s note: On Monday, PBS NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien will serve as master of ceremonies at an event honoring the legacy of astronaut Sally Ride at Washington, D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Monday’s tribute will highlight both her impact on the space program as well as her lifelong commitment to promoting science literacy among young people. Through the organization she founded, Sally Ride Science, she reached out to young girls, encouraging them to enter careers in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, where there is a noticeable gap.

NewsHour correspondent Jeff Brown spoke with O’Brien on Monday about Ride and her legacy:

And this is the column that O’Brien wrote immediately following Ride’s death in July 2012, after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer.*

On Jan. 28, 2003, I was sitting on top of the world — and hoping that would soon be literally the case — when Sally Ride knocked on my door in Atlanta. She was one of the guests of honor at my home that night to celebrate the opening of a new Challenger Learning Center.

It was no coincidence that this happened to be the 17th anniversary of the loss of OV-099 and the crew of STS-51-L. The surviving family members of that crew like to honor the last Challenger crew by cutting the ribbon on a new Challenger Center every year on January 28, if possible.

Sally was there to keynote the event at a museum (now defunct) called SciTrek, and I was hosting all the players involved in that noble cause.

Cheryl McNair, June Scobee Rodgers, Sally Ride and Miles O’Brien pictured at the opening of the Challenger Learning Center in Atlanta on Jan. 28, 2003. Photo by Ted Pio-roda/CNN.

When Sally arrived among this august crowd, she clearly owned the room. We all lined up for our photo with her, and she showed no impatience with what must have been for her a familiar ritual.

I had known her for some time already. She reached out to me at CNN whenever she had news to share about her efforts to reach out to young girls with her Sally Ride Science Festivals and Camps, and her amazing EarthKAM program that allows middle school students to take pictures with a digital camera mounted on the International Space Station.

She was relentless in her drive to get girls into the STEM fields. And she succeeded; no small feat in a culture that gives girls the message that working in a lab coat does not flatter their figure.

Sally was not one for small talk, and so it went at the party. But if the subject of conversation orbited close to her domain, she lit up like a solid rocket booster. And that is what happened when I confided in her that I had come to an agreement with NASA that would allow me to become the first journalist to fly on the space shuttle.

Sally Ride

Three days before launch, Ride takes a last look at Houston before taking off in a T-38 jet, bound for NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo by NASA.

We spoke at length about ways she and I could work together to reach as many young people as possible before, during and after my flight. She had committed her life to changing the face of the scientific fields, and was not one to let pass an opportunity to make a difference.

Sally understood what it meant to engage and inspire others. It requires imagination, hard work and tenacity. She had healthy doses of all of those admirable qualities, and more.

But she was less interested in talking about much of anything else. She built a wall of privacy around her intimate life, and allowed very few inside.

Perhaps all of this is why the only memoir that she wrote, To Space and Back (1986), was written for young readers and was focused on her two shuttle missions.

I normally do not ask people for autographs or inscriptions, but on this night I made an exception. I handed her my copy of the book, and she wrote: “Hope you’re the first journalist in space!”

Sally Ride’s inscription to Miles O’Brien in her book “To Space and Back.” Photo by Miles O’Brien

Nice words from someone who knows what it means to be first.

While she was signing, and we were celebrating, the STS-107 crew was orbiting a few hundred miles over our head — unaware of the fatal breach in the reinforced carbon heat shield on the leading edge of Columbia’s wing.

In four days, everything would change for the people in my house that night. Columbia, of course, did not make it home. Sally Ride would soon be serving on her second commission investigating the loss of a space shuttle and its crew.

In the forward to her book, she writes that it was ready to go to the printer when Challenger exploded one minute after lift-off. She wrote that she thought about whether to change anything, and decided to leave it as is, adding a dedication to the lost crew.

“All adventures — especially into new territory — are scary, and there has always been an element of danger in space flight,” she wrote. “I wanted to be an astronaut because I thought it would a challenging opportunity. It was; it was also an experience that I shall never forget.”

She knew the risks well, but still embraced the great adventure. That’s a life lesson worth remembering.

Watch PBS NewsHour’s report from July 24, 2012, on the life and legacy of Sally Ride.

This column was originally published on July 24, 2012.

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