Did you ever find something you wanted to try so badly, that it was all you thought about? Maybe you wanted to hit a home run, or sing like your favorite pop star, or learn to juggle. If you tried that thing–and I hope you did, as long as it wasn’t too dangerous–you might have found out that it was a little harder than you expected. Maybe you struggled at first. Maybe it suddenly didn’t seem as fun as you thought. Or maybe the thing was so cool that you just had to keep going. You practiced and practiced, asked other people who knew how to do the thing. Maybe you eventually did it! Whether or not you hit the home run, sang that song, or learned to juggle, you probably learned something about yourself. You might have learned that it feels amazing to see your hard work pay off. Or, you might have learned that you hate juggling and would rather spend your time learning to skateboard. Both are important things to learn about yourself.
Everyone spends time learning what they like, and what they’re capable of. Sometimes, they learn that what they are capable of isn’t what they like, and something else is calling them. That happened to Sally Ride.
Early Years of Sally Ride
Before we can get to what happened though, let’s go back to Southern California in the year 1951. This was the year Sally was born to Dale and Carol Ride. As a child, Sally’s dream job was to play baseball for the Los Angeles Dodgers. She was athletic, and was often chosen first for baseball teams. Of course, no women played major league baseball at the time, but this didn’t matter to Sally. Dale and Carol raised her and her sister, who was nicknamed Bear, to explore and try anything that interested them. To Sally, this meant playing sports and stargazing through a telescope with her father. Her favorite constellation was Orion. Many people in the 1950s thought of these as “boy” things, but Sally knew they were also girl things.
Sally Ride and Tennis
When she was nine, Sally’s family traveled to Europe. Between seeing the amazing sites, Sally played tennis for the first time on the trip. Just like that, Sally was hooked. Tennis became the center of her life. When they got back to the United States, Dale and Carol got Sally a tennis coach and she began competing. Before long, she was ranked in the top 20 players under 12 in Southern California!
Tennis also opened doors for Sally. A private high school gave her a scholarship to play for their team. In high school, Sally rediscovered her love of science. One teacher, Dr. Elizabeth Mommaerts, helped her see that there were opportunities for her in science. At the time, there weren’t many women who got advanced degrees in science, but Dr. Mommaerts had a PhD in human physiology. Sally was amazed by how smart and curious her teacher was, and how she approached every problem carefully and methodically, like a puzzle.
After high school, tennis again helped Sally find a place at school. She headed to Swarthmore College to study physics and play on the tennis team. Soon after arriving though, Sally’s mind began to wander to new possibilities. She was excelling at tennis: she won all her college matches, and even became the Eastern Intercollegiate Women’s Singles champion! Sally decided she wanted to try to become a professional tennis player. She packed up her bags and left Pennsylvania to return to Southern California.
Back in sunny California, Sally practiced every day for hours, year-round. But soon, she realized that she’d need to train even more in order to make it as a pro. Her body ached. She was tired. Playing tennis wasn’t as fun when she had to do it eight hours a day in order to compete. Sally decided to return to college full time.
Collegiate Life of Sally Ride
Sally headed to Stanford University, about a six hour drive from Los Angeles. There, she reacquainted herself with her other childhood passion: science. She studied physics: how stars and planets work, and even lasers!
This time, Sally was sure she’d made the right choice about her future. In fact, she stayed at Stanford an extra five years to earn her PhD in physics.
But even as Sally focused more on physics, she was still open to new opportunities. One morning in 1977, shortly before she finished her PhD, a huge opportunity stared her in the face when she opened her morning paper. It was the kind of opportunity that made all her past hobbies and interests fall into place. Even though she never could have known this opportunity would come along, it was perfect for Sally’s background as a sports-loving physicist.
It was an ad. NASA was recruiting new astronauts to fly in the space shuttle program. And for the first time, they were accepting applications from women. Sally had expected to get a job as a college teacher. But the chance to be an astronaut doesn’t come along every day, and Sally was excited by the possibility of actually visiting space, after studying the stars and planets and gazing up at Orion on so many nights. And, astronauts need to be in great physical shape too. All her years of playing tennis would be an advantage too.
NASA was a bit overdue in sending women to space. In fact, all the astronauts until this time had been white men, mostly Air Force pilots. Russia had sent a woman to space in 1963! Now, in addition to recruiting pilots, NASA was opening the astronaut program to anyone with training in science or engineering. They got thousands of applications! Out of all those applicants, Sally and five other women were chosen to train as astronauts! Not only were the first women chosen to be part of the space shuttle program, the class of 35 men and women included the first Asian American and African American astronauts.
Sally at NASA
Sally began her training in 1979. NASA was impressed by Sally. She was athletic and strong, committed and smart. Years of playing competitive tennis had taught her how to keep cool under pressure.
But even though Sally had the right stuff to be an astronaut, there was a lot to learn! She had to know space shuttle systems inside and out. She learned about geology, oceanography, and computer science, since she would need to perform all sorts of experiments in space. The astronaut candidates learned to fly supersonic jets, though most of them wouldn’t actually need to fly the shuttle–NASA still used professional pilots for that–it was important to know how it worked in case there was ever an emergency.
Off to Space for Sally Ride!
Finally, in 1982, after years of training and working on projects and shuttle missions from the ground, Sally got the call that all astronauts are eager for. NASA had assigned her to a mission. She would go to space in 1983 as a mission specialist on the space shuttle Challenger.
Sally would have a whole year to prepare for the mission. As part of her work on the ground for NASA, Sally had helped design a robotic arm that would move things like satellites in and out of the space shuttle’s cargo bay. On her mission, Sally would use the arm to place a satellite outside in space. It would fly alongside the shuttle for a few hours, taking pictures and doing experiments. Then, Sally would use the robotic arm to grab the satellite and pull it back into the shuttle.
It was an exciting project for Sally, but she was disappointed to find that news reporters weren’t very interested in it. Instead, they always asked her questions about what it would be like for a woman in space. Would she wear makeup in space? Would she be able to have children after going into space? Would she cry if she made a mistake? Understandably, Sally found these questions annoying at best, even insulting. Why couldn’t reporters ask her about the actual mission–the science she’d be doing, or the amazing robotic arm she’d designed–instead of obsessing over her gender?
But Sally kept her focus on training and ignored the rude questions. She made sure she knew every step of every task she needed to do during launch, in space, and on landing. On June 18th, 1983, Sally was ready to lift off!
The mission was a success: the crew performed experiments, and the robotic arm worked beautifully. But besides conducting experiments and gaining experience in space, Sally realized something far more profound. As she looked out the space shuttle window for the first time, she noticed something that astonished her:
“…it looked as if someone had taken a royal blue crayon and just traced along the Earth’s horizon. And then I realized that that blue line, that really thin royal blue line, was Earth’s atmosphere, and that was all there was of it. And it’s so clear from that perspective how fragile our existence is.”
Sally flew on another mission two years later, again on Challenger. Sally hoped she’d be able to fly again after her second mission, but in 1986 a terrible tragedy threw her hopes, and the whole shuttle program, into doubt. The space shuttle Challenger, which Sally had flown on twice, exploded a few minutes after lift-off. Seven astronauts were killed, including some Sally had trained with. Sally was devastated, but she was also one of the best people to help figure out what went wrong. NASA canceled all its space shuttle missions for years while Sally and a committee of other experts investigated the accident. They found that cold weather that morning in Florida caused a part to break during the flight.
By this time, Sally realized she would probably never fly on another mission. She stayed at NASA another year after the investigation, helping them plan for the future. But in 1987, she realized it was time to leave.
Sally went back to Stanford University to work as a physics professor. She also reconnected with a childhood friend, Tam O’Shaugnessy. The two fell in love, and would spend the next 27 years together. Tam was also a scientist–a biologist–and she loved sports and exercise too. Sally and Tam also shared a passion for encouraging children, especially girls, to explore science and technology. They wrote books and started a foundation together that offered science summer camps and science festivals. Sally even started a program that let kids in middle school control a satellite launched into space on the shuttle, taking pictures of earth from hundreds of miles above the ground.
In 2011, Sally learned she had pancreatic cancer. After battling the disease for over a year, she passed away at home in California. A year later, President Obama awarded Sally a Presidential Medal of Honor for her accomplishments. Tam accepted the award on her behalf.
People change their minds sometimes about what they want to do. New dreams take hold. But the most important thing to do if you want to make a dream come true is to act. Find out what you need to do to actually make that dream a reality and do it! You may find that you don’t like the doing as much as the dream, just like Sally Ride did with pro tennis. But, like Sally, if you try enough things, eventually you’ll find the right thing for you. And you never know when an opportunity will come along that requires your unique combination of talents, skills, and knowledge. So keep exploring!
Abawi, Atia (2021) She Persisted: Sally Ride. Philomel Books, New York.
Macy, Sue (2014) Sally Ride: Life on a Mission. Aladdin, New York.