When one of my fellow Fellows invited me to join him for the Tribute to Sally Ride at the Kennedy Center, I was thrilled to accept. I especially appreciated his attitude of, “Since it was Sally Ride, I knew I needed to invite a female to use the other ticket.”
In June will be the 30th anniversary of Dr. Ride’s flight as the first American woman in space. I can look back and think that it was inevitable that a woman would fly at some point, but I’m sure it didn’t feel quite like that at the time. The event at the Kennedy Center honored both Dr. Ride’s accomplishment and her subsequent contributions to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education, especially for women.
A recorded Tom Brokaw speech kicked off the event via a large screen hanging center stage. He introduced a video presenting the story of Sally Ride’s life and accomplishments. It included commentary by Sally’s life partner, Tam, as well as by her mother and sister. All three were in the audience last night, but I thought it was lovely that almost invariably, Tam was acknowledged first of the three.
Sally apparently loved music and dance, so a wide variety of tributes took that form and added texture to the evening. Twyla Tharp was in the audience and donated the performance of “Jordan” from Sweet Fields, which she choreographed. Damian Kulash played “All is Not Lost” on solo guitar, and Patti Austin in a rich contralto sang, “Way Up There,” which was written by Tena Clark, also present in the audience, as an anthem to NASA. Of all the musical selections, my favorite was Clair de Lune played while stunning images of Mars were shown on the screen. Yes, a slight mismatch in the Moon-Mars there, but it all worked.
Two former astronauts represented all of the astronaut corps in giving remarks. Pamela Melroy talked about the differing attitudes before and after Sally’s flight. When Ms. Melroy was in high school, she explained that she took one of those standard career tests. One of the two options suggested by the test was “florist,” and Ms. Melroy recalls that even when she was taking the test, she was frustrated that they weren’t asking her the right questions to identify her passion for science and her goal of going into space. If my mother had been present last night, I knew she would have cringed even at the start of the story. My mother has impressive credentials at railing against career tests that suggested that boys become doctors but girls become nurses. I seem to recall that the best match goal identified for me when I took the test was, “Teaching Catholic Sister.”
Ms. Melroy went on to explain that there are positive signs that times have changed. Both she and her college roommate went on to become astronauts, and they became part of a sisterhood of intelligent, motivated, talented, and successful women. When Ms. Melroy’s son was six years old, he asked his mother, “Mommy, can boys become astronauts, too?”
A theme for the evening was breaking glass ceilings, and Senator Barbara Mikulski, the first Democratic woman to be elected to the Senate in her own right gave impassioned remarks about the need for women and girls to have equal opportunities to those of men and boys. When Ms. Mikulski was elected as Senator of Maryland (or Senator of Goddard Space Center, as suggested by the MC), one of her first letters of congratulations came from Sally Ride. It was thus with great pride that Senator Mikulski brought greetings from all twenty women currently in the Senate.
Speaking to Sally Ride’s unflagging efforts to ensure STEM opportunities were available to both girls and boys was Craig Barrett, who met Sally early in her career. As he explained it, “Sally went on to work for a little start up called NASA. I went on to work for a little start up called Intel.” Craig later became CEO of Intel, but he noted, “Sally went higher than I did.” Years later, Craig and his wife brought Sally out to their ranch in Montana for some rest and relaxation. Sally refused to get on a horse, so the three set off to tour the area on all terrain vehicle-type bikes. As is typical in the Rockies, one dirt road they traveled was precipice on one side and vertical wall on the other. Craig and his wife realized that Sally had fallen behind, so they went back to collect her. Her ATV was tipped over near the wall-side of the road. When they asked her if she was OK, she replied, “I’m just a little bit scared of heights.” Craig loved that this talented and accomplished woman who had flown 200 miles in the sky was still so down to earth.
Billie Jean King had known Sally Ride when Ride was a nationally ranked tennis player who spent a summer as a camp counselor at King’s tennis camp. King had encouraged Ride to go pro on the tennis circuit, but Ride explained that she was going to graduate school to get a doctorate in astrophysics. King asked, “Is that like astronomy? What are you going to do with that degree, go into space?” Ride replied, “Well, yes.”
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice via video remembered that she was a junior member of the faculty at Stanford when Dr. Ride joined the ranks. Determined to have a word with this famous woman but incredibly tongue-tied, when they were introduced, Rice blurted out, “What was it like being in space?” Ride answered with grace and poise, and the two of them went on to be neighbors and friends as well as colleagues.
In addition to giving numerous talks encouraging interest in STEM disciplines, Ride helped to create two programs that were designed to engage middle school students. EarthKAM (KAM = Knowledge Acquired by Middleschoolers) was an extra camera flown on each shuttle flight dedicated to taking photographs requested by middle school students. It’s rather fascinating to look at the image gallery and see what the students requested. MoonKAM is a similar camera program allowing students to study the moon. I can imagine that geography would be far more interesting when taught via space-based photography. When I looked through the image gallery for an illustration, I learned that our atmosphere has a lot of clouds!
NASA administrator, Charles Bolden, was pleased to share that President Obama had announced that Sally Ride was being awarded a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor, which is the country’s highest civilian award. The award recognized her not particularly for her historic flight, but more for her tireless work afterward to advocate for STEM education and to inspire young women and girls to break through barriers and pursue their dreams. After hearing the evening of tributes and the many examples of Sally Ride’s influence, I agreed that the award was quite appropriate and well-earned.
Sally Ride passed away in 2012 after a 17 month battle with pancreatic cancer. She will obviously be missed by far more than just her own family. Godspeed, Sally Ride.