In Remembrance of Sally Ride
Like many women scientists of my generation, I felt a special affinity with Sally Ride. I met her just after she was selected as an astronaut when she came to visit my graduate institution as part of her training program. Both of us were graduate students at the time, and we met in the basement of the elegant Athaneum at Caltech, which on Friday evenings served beer and popcorn for graduate students and their professors. She was excited and eager to begin her astronaut training. We discovered that we both had degrees in X-ray astronomy and English -- possibly the only two women on the planet with that background.
NASA understood that its choice of the first American woman to travel in space would be a momentous one for the individual selected because it would pivot her into historical prominence and the unrelenting glare of the media. So the selection was made with considerable attention to both skill and personality; everyone who met Sally thought she had the right stuff for this conspicuous assignment. She was smart, conscientious and humble. She really enjoyed the work of being an astronaut and she wanted to do a really good job.
It was her deep knowledge of the program and her probing, inquisitive mind that made her sought after to serve on committees investigating complex matters associated with the space program, like the Challenger and Columbia accident investigation committees. She was focused in her pursuit of what she thought was of value, which was science education for girls of middle-school age. She wanted to communicate the beauty of science to youngsters who could be inspired to become scientists and engineers, and did so by means of both children's books and science festivals for girls, which were held on many college campuses. It was at a few such events that I came to know Sally and her sister Bear better, and feel their enthusiasm for the vocation of science outreach.
It seems unbelievable to me that Sally is gone. She gave no public announcement of her long illness, so to most people her passing was a surprise. She lived quietly, in an understated manner, and she died the same way. But in death, as in life, the symbolic nature of what she did fills the sky.