Space Shuttle missions were amazingly fantastic. The launches were usually in the morning, right smack in the middle of the Today Show and I couldn’t wait to watch them. I loved hearing the mission control guy count down. “T-minus 1 minute, 30 seconds.” Eventually he would say, “Lift off. We have lift off.” A blast of fire trailed the shuttle which soon was out of view of our television cameras. In 1983 the coolest thing was that a woman was going on the space shuttle. There was such a thing as a girl astronaut. And her name was Sally Ride.
I was completely enthralled with NASA and the space program as a kid. I loved taking out the binoculars to check out the moon from my backyard. I don’t know that I ever wanted to be an astronaut. But the story of space, the story of science always intrigued me. I didn’t need to be on the fast track to a PhD in astrophysics in order to appreciate and be inspired by science, whether it was daydreaming about the planets and stars or learning about ways to protect the environment. And yes, I was always the kid who wanted to learn more than the state-sanctioned lesson plan. Which meant I did extra credit just for extra credit’s sake.
Here’s the thing about Sally Ride — she was a smart chick in a mostly man’s world. I don’t recall her playing a “feminist” card but then again I wasn’t all too up on the feminist point of view as a 10-year old anyway. What I saw was a woman who was smart, who loved science and was passionate about what she did. She made it OK for me to be smart, to like school, to have eclectic interests. And she looked like me. She was a girl, too.
Yesterday, I wrote about Lopez Lomong’s book Running for My Life where he tells his life story as a Lost Boy from Sudan who ended up an American Olympian. When he first saw the Olympics, he saw Michael Johnson win gold in the 400 meters. Later, as a high school student in Syracuse, his teacher encouraged him to write a paper on Jesse Owens at the 1932 Olympics. What was astounding to Lomong was that both were black men, just like him. That provided a source of inspiration for him. Never underestimate the power of seeing people like you do things you never imagined possible. Never underestimate the power of those “first people” because they open up possibilities. They open the ability to dream.
I may not have followed Sally Ride into a career of math and science. But she showed me that women can do whatever they want, can be whoever they want. She showed me that being smart and passionate were assets, not something to shy away from.
Sally Ride died yesterday at the age of 61 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. She touched more young girls than she can imagine. And her life is a great example that I, too, have the ability to impact other peoples lives. I don’t need to be an astronaut. I only need to be true to who I am, to be passionated about the things I love. And along the way I may never know what that example might mean to someone else. I know what Sally Ride’s example meant to me as a 10-year old girl with wide eyes and big dreams. And I’m grateful for her example.