A is for Astronaut. H is for Hero.
R.I.P. Sally Ride
The video above is very special to me. It represents the earliest memory I have of being interested in science. In the mid-80’s my life revolved around a precious few cultural institutions: Transformers, He-Man, Knight Rider, CHiPs and of course … Sesame Street.
I was just a little too young to have seen Sally Ride’s appearance on Sesame Street when it first aired around 1984, but in reruns just a year or two later, I distinctly remember her light blue flight suit, that big square name tag, the bright patches that adorned her chest like medals from adventures that I could scarcely imagine. Her green-screen rocket launch suspended a full 100% of my disbelief. I also remember that her looks reminded me of my mom, who is a computer scientist. This is coming from a guy who can barely remember what he had for breakfast, so let the significance of a 27 year-old memory be noted.
Like Sally Ride and my mother, there were countless females trudging unheralded through swamps of sexism, explicit and otherwise, to achieve their scientific and professional goals. I was completely oblivious to this at my young age, of course. But I knew what space was, I knew what astronauts were, I knew how awesome space shuttles were, and I understood that Sally Ride was the first woman to ride one. I just didn’t understand exactly what that meant. And despite all of that, I became a biologist, not an astronaut.
I’m certain that most children didn’t. To us, being the first woman to do something just meant that only boys had done it before. Thus, to me, as a young boy, Sally Ride didn’t represent a pioneering feminist, a trailblazer of labor equality or any such polysyllabic sociopolitical archetype. She was all of those things, though.
For us, Sally Ride was our first astronaut-teacher. She was perhaps the first scientist that many of us saw. She smiled at us, and told us that happy people were doing very smart things. She told us that doing smart things could make us happy. Many years later, I saw her speak of the continuing challenges faced by girls in science. For a second time in my life, she inspired me, only this time it was to show the world how accessible and amazing science is, male or female, future scientist or future citizen.
It’s impossible to know what my trajectory in life would have been without that Sesame Street episode. Would I have ended up where I am today had I chose to ride my bike that day and missed it? Would I be a banker, or a chef? Nope, I think I’d have ended up right here. It is precisely because of people like Sally Ride, and her lifetime commitment to teaching and empowering anyone to study science, that the discovery bug is so easy to catch today, and so rewarding to those who do.
We have much work to do to continue her legacy of equality and education, but the largest leaps have already been taken. When Sally Ride rode into space as our first female astronaut, she carried us all forward with her. So thank you, Sally Ride. We will continue to teach, discover and smile in your honor.
For more, check out Sally Ride Science, and support it and other inspirational programs in your community.