Sally Ride’s Legacy
July 24th, 2012
I first learned about the death of pioneering astronaut Sally Ride from this CNN report. When she flew aboard a Space Shuttle Challenger flight in 1983, she became the first American woman in space. She took another trip aboard the Challenger a year later. She was scheduled for a third mission, but it was cancelled after the Challenger exploded shortly after take-off in 1986. She served on the accident review crew for that flight, and served again in the investigation of the 2003 Columbia accident.
All of that was covered in the CNN report, as with all of the other obituaries. But there was one line which, at the moment of her death, has overshadowed all of her accomplishments in life. It was this:
Ride is survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy, her mother, her sister and other family members.
Look around the blogs and tell me what you see. What are they talking about? Her accomplishments? Or the fact of her partner? Andrew Sullivan, for example, reacted:
I’m not so understanding. We can judge this decision in the context of Ride’s life. Her achievements as a woman and as a scientist and as an astronaut and as a brilliant, principled investigator of NASA’s screw-ups will always stand, and vastly outshine any flaws. But the truth remains: she had a chance to expand people’s horizons and young lesbians’ hope and self-esteem, and she chose not to.
She was the absent heroine.
An absent heroine? Really?
When she took her first flight in 1983, I was a year away from graduating with an Engineering degree. There was exactly one woman in my sixty-some member class. The male-female ratio in many of the hard sciences was typically greater than the straight-nonstraight ratio in the general population. Even within my graduating class, gays outnumbered women. I’m still not sure that has changed much since then. Ride most certainly expanded people’s horizons in ways that I think, sadly thirty years later, many still fail to see.
I don’t know what it says about us that we expect — demand, really — that anyone who gains any kind of achievement, fame, or notoriety, they must accede to our demands and come out of the closet — which we define not in terms of acknowledging their relationships to their friends, familes, neighbors, coworkers and others who are important to them, but to reporters, bloggers and PR specialists who are important to us.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful to those who do come out publicly and with great fanfare. I appreciate their value as role models. But isn’t it one of the goals that we are striving to achieve that everyone can live their own lives as publicly — and as privately — as they wish, for whatever reason they may wish it? Isn’t our fight a fight for self-determination and against the interference of busybodies who would presume to tell us how we should live based on what they think we should do?
I’m not going to second-guess her any more than I’ve second-guessed anyone else’s decision in how much they want to disclose about themselves, as long as they don’t act in a way that is hypocritical or in conflict with those in similar situations who choose differently. It’s why I was never all that agitated over Anderson Cooper’s decision until recently not to discuss his personal life for so many years. Sally Ride was a hero in the way that she chose — and fought — to be a hero, and there are many women and young girls today who are rightfully grateful for it. I can live with that.