Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sally Ride lithograph from NASA and People Weekly magazine

An inevitable part of ageing is watching time claim your heroes one by one as the years go by. This week, the world lost Dr Sally Ride all too early. She was only 61.

On 18 June 1983, Ride became the first American woman in space when she flew as a mission specialist on space shuttle Challenger’s second flight, STS-7. This mission also made her—at the age of 32—the youngest American to fly into space, a record that stands to this day.

The copy of this portrait in my collection is a standard NASA lithograph, 8″ × 10″, serial HqL-135 and dated 1983. However, the picture was taken at the time of Ride’s selection into the astronaut program in 1978. She was one of six women out of the thirty-five people in this group. They were the first new astronauts recruited into the space program since the Apollo era and called themselves “TFNG”, publicly “thirty-five new guys”, but also familiar military slang for “the fucking new guy” in an astronaut corps that was still dominated by military test pilots.

Perhaps nothing speaks more painfully eloquently of the cultural importance of American women becoming astronauts than some of the questions put to Dr Ride at a press conference shortly before STS-7.

Some of these questions were documented by Michael Ryan, who wrote a feature on Ride for People Weekly at the time (“A Ride in Space”, 20 June 1983, pp.82–88). Ride was also pictured on the cover:

As recorded by Ryan, these questions included:
  • “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
  • “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
  • “Will you become a mother?”
Ride refused to answer this kind of crap, retorting instead, “How come nobody ever asks Rick those questions?” (Rick Hauk, the former US Navy fighter pilot and test pilot who was assigned to fly Challenger on their mission). My favourite of her responses was:
It may be too bad that our society isn’t further along and this is such a big deal.
Note that even the editor responsible for the magazine cover called these questions “dumb” and “chauvinist”. Awareness was certainly growing.

Elsewhere in the People Weekly article, Ride’s mother, Joyce, recalled that Johnny Carson had joked on-air that the the launch was being postponed until Sally Ride could find a purse to match her shoes.

This, of someone with a PhD in astrophysics and whose selection into the astronaut corps confirmed her place as one of the best, brightest, and most capable people of her generation.

Thirty years and a generational change later, it might be a little less likely that a woman would be treated this way today, but unfortunately, such attitudes are not confined to the history books just yet.

Following her death, it has emerged that Ride spent the last twenty-seven years of her life in a same-sex relationship. Her partner of all those years, Dr Tam O’Shaughnessy, will not be entitled to all the benefits to which she would be entitled if theirs had been a heterosexual relationship, as explained on this NASA table: Benefits Available to Same Sex Domestic Partners. I think this is profoundly sad and unjust. To me it seems that Ride’s words apply equally:
It may be too bad that our society isn’t further along and this is such a big deal.
when “this” is the sex of one’s partner.

Copyright information: the portrait lithograph is a NASA publication and as a work of the US federal government, is in the public domain. The People Weekly cover is copyright Time Inc. Use here is claimed to be fair use for the purpose of education and commentary in a non-commercial setting as permitted by 17 U.S.C. § 107.

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