Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Archive for December, 2014

Meeting the Real Sally Ride

sally-ride-9781476725765_lg[1]I’ve been a long time Sally Ride fan, and even wrote a children’s biography about her several years ago. That book was part of an astronaut series, so it focused on that part of her life. But Ride’s time with NASA spanned only nine years. In Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space, author Lynn Sherr gives readers a look at Ride’s complete life. She writes about Ride’s success as an amateur tennis player. She had toyed with the idea of going pro, but then decided on a career as a physicist, earning a PhD in astrophysics from Stanford University. Just as she was finishing her degree, she saw an announcement in the college newspaper saying that NASA was looking for astronauts including women. She applied along with about 8,000 others, and became one of 35 selected for the 1978 astronaut class.

Sherr met Ride in 1981 when she was covering the shuttle program for ABC news. Ride was one of the astronauts Sherr interviewed and the two women quickly became friends. With Sherr’s knowledge of the shuttle program and her friendship with Ride, she was able to provide interesting details in the book about Ride’s years with NASA.

Ride resigned from NASA in 1987 and returned to academia. She taught physics to university students and published physics papers. But one of her most lasting legacies was the work she did in making science fun for kids, especially girls, through the company she founded, Sally Ride Science. She organized science festivals for students all across the country. Part of Ride’s success with her company came from her ability to explain difficult science concepts in a way young people could understand. She enjoyed talking to kids about her experiences in space, and she co-wrote six children’s books about space.

Sherr skillfully weaves together information from these various areas of Ride’s life, but the most difficult part of her job was piecing together Ride’s personal life. As an astronaut, Ride was one of the most famous women in the world. She remained a public figure although on a smaller scale through Sally Ride Science. But off stage, she was an extremely private person, so private that only her closest friends knew she had enjoyed a long-term relationship with another woman. The rest of us learned about that relationship only after her death from pancreatic cancer in 2012 at age 61. A note in Ride’s obituary listed “Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of twenty-seven years” as one of her survivors.

Sherr was also surprised to learn about that relationship even though she and Ride had been friends for many years. It was part of the reason Sherr wanted to write Ride’s biography. She wanted to understand why Ride felt it was so necessary to keep that part of her life secret.

Sherr had full co-operation from Ride’s family and friends when she was writing her book. In fact, it was O’Shaughnessy who first approached Sherr about doing the biography. Sherr interviewed Ride’s mother, her sister, her ex-husband Steven Hawley, and many of Ride’s friends and co-workers. She also had access to Ride’s journals, letters, and files. The result is a book rich with details written in an entertaining style that made it hard for me to put it down once I started reading.

When I think of Sally Ride, the first image that still comes to mind is the one of the bubbly astronaut who compared take-off on her first trip into space to the most exciting rides at Disney World. But her life was so much more. Sherr shows Ride as the type of person who never stopped pushing herself to do great things. Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space made a long-time fan like me admire Ride even more.

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