Review: Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space

Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space by Lynne Sherr

Simon and Schuster, 2014. Hardcover, 400 pages.Cover of Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space

This biography includes many things people would like to learn about the first American woman in space.  Born and raised in California, Sally Ride grew up enjoying science in school and playing tennis. On the latter, she often participated in tournaments, including during her first year and a half of college.   Her father encouraged her and her sister that nothing should ever hold them back.

Once she transferred from her first college in Pennsylvania back to California, Sally dedicated her life to studying physics.  As she ended her educational career by earning an astrophysics degree at Stanford, Sally also applied for the first astronaut class that planned to accept women (1978).  Until she saw the advertisement for the mission specialist positions and the fact they did not require a military or flight background, Sally never thought to take the chance.  But once she did and was accepted into the program, Sally wholeheartedly dedicated herself to it.  Learning along with five other women and two men, Sally soon found herself among the top of her class.  This was one reason she was chosen to be the first woman in space.  The other was her leadership style; she never demanded, she facilitated, always wanting everyone to see their full potential.

During her NASA years, Sally trained to use the shuttle’s robotic arm; flew two space missions; married fellow astronaut Steve Hawley; and learned to fly, becoming an accomplished pilot in her own right.  She also served as CAPCOM for several other missions.  When the Challenger exploded shortly after take off in 1986, Sally was the only NASA representative on the commission investigating the disaster.  After the investigation was complete, she headed a department and wrote its corresponding report on what NASA’s new goals should be, a program she chose to call Mission to Planet Earth.  The plan was a reminder to focus not only on what is in space, but to find ways to protect Earth and its resources as well.

When Sally left NASA, she took a two-year fellowship back at Stanford.  When it was complete, she was offered a teaching and research position at University of California in San Diego.  While at UCSD, she dedicated herself to teaching her students about physics and space.  Realizing that she wanted to ensure future generations could have the change she was given, she helped propose the idea for the EarthKAM, a camera controlled remotely by students in schools, and later formed Sally Ride Science in the early 2000s to promote science in middle school.  Through the latter, Sally and her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, created a plethora of educational materials, conducted science camps, and held training camps for science teachers.  Based on what I read, I wish I her program existed when I was in middle school!  It was founded one year too late for me!

The book concludes with Sally’s battle with cancer and a bit on her legacy.

I really like how this book incorporated many of Sally’s words.  While a woman of few, those she did say were impactful.  Whether the quotes were given to the media or taken from her personal and professional documents, including an oral history interview, Sally always seemed to know what to say and did it with a sense of humor.  And when giving examples to her students, she came up with simple and creative ones based on her space experiences that anyone could comprehend.  She seemed to be gifted that way.  I know I learned a few new things from her quotes.  And the book was highly readable, written in a flowing conversational style as opposed to an academic one.

My only complaint was that the biography was written by a journalist friend of Sally and that may have led to unintentional bias.  Nothing bad was included, but was that because there is none or because of a friend covering for a friend?  I hope the former, but there is no way to be sure.  That said, Sherr used great tact to describe Sally’s lesbian relationship with Tam and Sally’s battle with cancer that may not have been possible for someone who did know personally know Sally.

Above I provided a brief outline for the book and Sally’s life.  However, it is meant to be just that.  The biography will provide the full story and describe how Sally reached her goals; her relationships with her friends, family, and colleagues; and her personality.  Without that full access, one cannot fully see how Sally used her impact as the first American woman in space to revolutionize science and education.

Do you think you will read this biography?  Have you read a biography of another astronaut worth recommending reading? What do you think of Sally?

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