Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Death of Sally Ride

The Death of Sally Ride

The death of Sally Ride last week caught me by surprise as it did many.  Her smiling face was frozen in an earlier time.  She had asked that people not talk about her battle with pancreatic cancer and her wishes were honored.  For those of us who knew her at a distance she will be forever young.

She also ought to be forever remembered. Her career reflects many if not most of the changes that have impacted the lives of American women over the last half-century.  We should read her story with unveiled appreciation. Here at MIT her life lies behind the evolutionary changes that have brought women to nearly half of the undergraduate student body.  It is no longer foolish to dream of a life in science if you are a girl.  We all owe a debt to Sally Ride.

She was fortunate to grow up in Southern California, the child of educators who valued learning and exploration.  Her parents were elders in their Presbyterian Church and her sister is a Presbyterian minister so the notion of “calling” would not have been foreign to her.  The exploration of space became her calling and that translated in later years to opening the doors of the world she knew to young women.

She went to the Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles and there found a mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Mommaerts. When she became an astronaut she learned that she could not share her triumph with the good doctor for she had taken her own life. Instead Ride dedicated her first book to Dr. Mommaerts and to the fallen crew of the Challenger. Exploration is a dangerous business and the casualties are not all remembered.

For a time sport was a passion. She thought she might one day crack the line-up of the Los Angeles Dodgers and then she toyed with being a professional tennis player.  At Stanford she excelled at Physics, Astrophysics and English earning degrees in each. She chose to soar above the earth calling it “The most fun I’ll ever have in my life.”

She was a role model for many, a woman who shattered glass ceilings and left a legacy of accomplishment marked by personal privacy. Her life partner was a woman, her work was to encourage young women to pursue their interest in science and the sky was the limit. She showed us how to reach for it. It is seldom in the trajectory of one life we can see so much change unfold but her life is an encouraging tale reminding us that individuals do make a difference. Read her story and be reminded on whose courageous shoulders we stand.