In 1983, I may have dressed like a Madonna wanna-be, but who I really wanted to be was astronaut Sally Ride.
Dr. Ride became the first American woman to fly in space on the Shuttle Challenger and I remember so vividly - literally - looking up to her. She was so normal, so sensible. And so young - the youngest American to go to space as well.
I don't know why I was so obsessed with her. I was good at words, not math, and I'd get so anxious before physics tests that I'd start feeling dizzy and my classmate Sid Feldman would have to walk me to the school nurse (who'd take one look at me and say: "Physics again?")
Crazy about Sally Ride
It's not that I ever thought I'd have a shot at being a trailblazing woman of science or space. Not even close. It's just that Sally Ride looked like women I knew, like my mom's friends and my teachers. She had that mass of unruly dark brown hair. She seemed reachable somehow, and yet, there she went, beyond the stars.
And she was confident, sassy even. I have a vague memory of thinking that but not remembering why. Then, I read this passage in today's story in The New York Times:
"Dr. Ride was finishing studies at Stanford — degrees in physics and astrophysics (and also English) — and looking for a job when she saw a newspaper advertisement that said NASA was accepting astronaut applications. She looked at the qualifications and said, "I'm one of those people," she told The New York Times in 1982."
I must have read that comment in 1982. Being a sassy high school gal myself, I'm sure her comment made me like her even more. I'm sure it made me think I could be one of "those people" in whatever arena I chose someday. I remember reading everything I could about her and watching all the coverage. I remember wanting one of those T-shirts that said "Ride, Sally Ride." Even though I wasn't sciencey or even from Florida. I was just crazy about her.
Death of more than a role model
That's why I'm heartbroken to have just learned that she has died, at 61, from pancreatic cancer, according to The New York Times.
The obituary says after her space adventures she went on to do all kinds of amazing and important work, which is no surprise. I went off to college and I stopped following her after that. Then the other Challenger exploded and it became too stressful to watch launches anymore.
Something else in The New York Times story about her death reminds me of how much we should cherish Sally Ride's life.
After the launch, the Times writes: "The next day, Gloria Steinem, then editor of the magazine Ms., said, "Millions of little girls are going to sit by their television sets and see they can be astronauts, heroes, explorers and scientists."
Like I said, Sally Ride's story didn't make me see myself as an astronaut or scientist - her story, her life, made me see so clearly that I could be the most excellent version of myself. I, too, could be "one of those people."
"Ride, Sally Ride."