On this date in 1983, Sally K. Ride, the astronaut with the dime novel name, made history aboard the space shuttle Challenger as it circled the Earth. This was second mission for Challenger and the first for Sally Ride -- and also the first time a female American astronaut had ventured into space.
Born in Los Angeles on May 26, 1951, Sally Kristen Ride was 14 years old when the Mattel Co. produced its first "Barbie Astronaut," a cultural signpost meaning that she belonged to a new generation less willing to shoehorn women and girls into a narrowly defined set of expectations and professions.
In her youth, Sally Ride was a nationally ranked tennis player and a math and science whiz in the classroom. She attended a prestigious Southern California high school and Swarthmore College and UCLA before landing at Stanford University, where she earned a bachelor's degree with a double major in English and physics. Like most bright and creative people, Ride had a right brain as well as a left brain -- something I asked her about at a White House ceremony. She said she majored in English because she loved Shakespeare. But she went ahead and got a master's degree and a doctorate in astrophysics.
While at Stanford, Ride saw a NASA advertisement in the school newspaper. She wasn't the only one: 8,000 young people answered the ad, and from that pool Ride was one of 35 selected for the U.S. space program. Six were women.
When Challenger lifted off at Cape Canaveral on this date in 1983, Dr. Ride was a 32-year-old NASA mission specialist who operated the space shuttle's robot arm, a device she had helped design. The Russians had sent a female cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova, into space 20 years earlier. But if NASA was late getting with the program, Sally Ride helped the U.S. make up for lost time. She became an instant inspiration to generations of American girls and women.
It's not quite right to say she was a reluctant spokeswoman, as she made hundreds of public appearances over the years, speaking encouragingly to audiences and greeting fans and well-wishers warmly. Yet she was by nature a shy person, drawn more easily to science than politics. She was also very private. She married fellow astronaut Steven Hawley in 1982, and divorced him in 1987, never speaking of it publicly. Until she died of pancreatic cancer eight years ago, few people even knew she was sick. Her death brought another revelation: her longtime relationship with a female partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy.
Once again, Sally was a role model. After Ride's death, her sister described O'Shaughnessy as "a member of the family."
"The pancreatic cancer community is going to be absolutely thrilled that there's now this advocate that they didn't know about," she added. "And I hope the [LGBT] community feels the same. I hope it makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that another one of their heroes was like them."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.