Mission Possible – How Sally Ride Brought Science Down to Earth

It was a shock to the nation, and the world, when former astronaut Sally Ride passed away in July of 2012. 61 is far too young for anyone to die. What is remarkable about Sally Ride is how much she packed into…

It was a shock to the nation, and the world, when former astronaut Sally Ride passed away in July of 2012. 61 is far too young for
anyone to die. What is remarkable about Sally Ride is how much she packed into
that life. Like many people around the world, I first saw Sally Ride on
the TV news when I was a kid. It was big news. The Soviet Union had launched a
woman into space two decades earlier, but when Sally flew on the space shuttle
in 1983 the achievement felt brand new. NASA’s astronauts before that flight
had all been white men, mostly with test pilot backgrounds. It was easy to
mistake one for another. To see a woman on television floating inside the space
shuttle gave the space program an entirely new face. This new space vehicle was
for everyone, I understood.“To see a woman on television floating inside the space shuttle gave the space program an entirely new face.”
Yet not anyone could gain a coveted seat. Shuttle astronauts
had to be sharp. Sally’s selection group was a mixture of the country’s top
pilots plus some very bright, ambitious scientists and engineers. Sally herself
had a brand new doctorate in physics when she joined NASA in 1978. Fresh out of
college, she was the youngest American to fly in space when she was launched on
the first of her two missions aboard space shuttle Challenger.She would have flown at least one more mission, but the
shuttle she flew on twice was lost in a tragic accident at the beginning of
1986. Ride was appointed to the board that investigated the tragedy, ensuring
that the engineering issues that doomed the mission were fixed. Then, as often
happens with high achievers, she was promoted into new positions within NASA
that took her away from her active flying astronaut role.Here is where the history books could have lost interest in
Sally Ride. After all, many other people with notable achievements never match
them again in life. Ride could have gone on to prestigious and lucrative
positions in government or private industry. Her name and her prior
achievements could have comfortably carried her for decades. Yet that is not
what Sally chose to do with the rest of her career.When she hired me to work for her, she had set up a company
named Sally Ride Science, designed specifically to engage middle schoolers –
particularly girls – in the excitement of science and engineering. Sally and
her team had spent a number of years researching why women were not entering
careers in STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math – as readily
as men. Her research suggested that peer pressure in middle school was a large
factor. Science was seen as something only old white men did, alone, in a
basement. It didn’t sound very appealing to middle school girls. How could
science be made to appeal to this age?“Science was seen as something only old white men did, alone, in a basement. It didn’t sound very appealing to middle school girls. How could science be made to appeal to this age?”
One answer was to create science festivals around the
country. My job with Sally and her company was to help stage the science
equivalent of a traveling rock show – dynamic speakers, astronaut appearances,
a street festival, music, food, and dozens of inspiring women scientists and
engineers giving workshops. The events attracted tens of thousands of girls. We
could see their opinion of science and engineering change the moment they
arrived, saw the festive atmosphere, and saw thousands of girls like themselves
engaging in fun, hands-on activities. Sally frequently gave talks to the girls
herself and signed hundreds of autographs, but other times another woman
astronaut would be there to share her experiences instead. Every weekend, we
saw young people leave with a whole new impression of what science and
engineering really was. Whatever they went on to do in life, they never thought
of science and engineering in the same way again.I was impressed by Sally. An intensely private person, she
nevertheless put herself out in front of the public week after week, inspiring
students across the nation, because she truly believed in what she was doing.
It would have been so easy for her to fade into the background as another name
in the history books. Instead, she showed that educating people is a lifelong
passion.She was a first, and that was important. I truly believe, however,
that the second act of her life was even more important. She motivated,
educated and challenged a whole new generation who will go on to be firsts in
other fields. Half a century from now, there will be women scientists and
engineers making groundbreaking discoveries as a direct result of meeting
Sally. Even for such a short life, what more of a legacy could any of us hope
to leave?
Francis French
is originally from Manchester, England, although he now lives and works in Southern California. He has been working for over a decade in the field of science education, particularly in making science and technology accessible and understandable to family audiences in informal learning settings such as museums. His work has included regular collaborations with NASA, retired astronauts, notable astronomers and astronomical observatories around the world, and a banner he designed was flown on the space shuttle Columbia’s last successful mission. He is the former Director of Events with Sally Ride Science, working for America’s first woman in space, and the current Director of Education at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.

He has been a regular contributor of articles to aerospace magazines since 1996, primarily in the area of manned spaceflight history, and is the co-author of both Into That Silent Sea and In The Shadow of the Moon.