Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Shattering the Stratospheric Glass Ceiling

I was one of those many kids captivated by all things outer space. I spent hours in our basement playroom, pretending to be an astronaut in my space capsule, the big cardboard box that once contained our new refrigerator. I passed my late elementary school years in blissful ignorance that my lack of interest in math and physics and my propensity for motion sickness would pretty much disqualify me from a future with NASA.

Though I remember watching Sally Ride rocket into orbit on June 18, 1983, shattering the stratospheric glass ceiling, I doubt my ten-year-old self appreciated the full significance of the event.

Nor did I grasp how much some in the boys' club resented her. She endured countless patronizing jokes (Johnny Carson quipped that the shuttle launch would be delayed because she couldn't settle on a handbag and shoes) and stupid questions from legitimate journalists (such as whether she was worried traveling into space would harm her chances of having children). No writer, to the best of my knowledge, had ever inquired  as to whether male astronauts feared the effects of all those G-forces on sperm production.

Sally Ride died yesterday from pancreatic cancer.

Three things I learned from her obituary:

Although NASA had made a commitment to hire women, Sally Ride's first trip into space wasn't tokenism or a publicity stunt, like the tragically doomed Teacher in Space mission of 1986. Dr. Ride was instrumental in developing the shuttle's now famous robotic arm. The commander of the mission chose her because of her expertise with the device.

After retiring from NASA, Dr. Ride taught at Stanford and at the University of California at San Diego.  She started a company, Sally Ride Science, with a goal of making science and math more interesting to junior high school students, particularly girls. Dr. Ride  believed too many girls with aptitude for the sciences were pressured into different directions during the critical middle school years. Her company set up science fairs and festivals around the country, and provided teacher training work shops, with a focus on providing girls with female role models in the science world. In short, she worked hard to make the sciences cool.

Aside: I don't have a daughter, but if I ever hear the Grape saying that some jobs are for boys and others are for girls, I assure you he'll have another think coming.

Dr. Ride is survived by her partner of 27 years, who will not be eligible for federal survivorship benefits because of the misguided, discriminatory and harmful Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Any politician out there praising Dr. Ride's contributions to science and society should be ready to answer why we Americans, in 2012, allow a second class of citizenship.

Godspeed, Dr. Ride. I hope the view from wherever you are now is fantastic.

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