With the unfortunate passing of Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, recently, it’s poignant to reflect upon how utterly significant her achievement really was. On her launch into space on Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983, she was preceeded by two Russian women, Valentina Tereshkova (1963) and Svetlana Savitskaya (1982), however still marking a significant turning point for governmental and societal opinion. Sally was also the only person to serve on both the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia Accident Investigation Boards. She also informed major space policy decisions by being a presidential panel member of the 2009 Review of United States Human Spaceflight Plans Committee. This was an independent review of US Human Spaceflight Policy and resulted in fundamental changes made to the US space program. Sally Ride has also been a supporter of women’s education in science and engineering, co-founding Sally Ride Science, a science education company that creates entertaining science programs for 4-8th grade students, specifically focussing on girls.
The story of Sally Ride’s journey to space is the culmination of a decades long struggle at NASA to allow female astronauts, clearly depicted in this article in The Atlantic. Spanning 20 years, from Valentina Tereshkova’s flight in 1963 to Sally Ride’s in 1982. It’s a shame to see how little awareness society has of these women’s achievements. In particular those such as in this case, relating to women in STEM fields, where they’ve had to overcome such adversity in order to even be considered for a particular position.
However, when society has progressed from comments such as “The hand that rocks the cradle should not steer a rocket,” 40 years ago to four women in space simultaneously, it’s an achievement to be proud of. But also to not forget the path that led to where we are as a society today.