Sally Ride: Passing of an American Icon
From guest author Dr. Kathryn Thornton
On July 23, 2012, we lost an icon and a globally renowned role model for women in science. In 1983, Sally Ride launched into history as the first American woman in space. I did not know Sally in my pre-NASA days but we were contemporaries. We both grew up in a time when opportunities for women in male-dominated fields were just opening up. We were early beneficiaries of the women’s movement of the 1970’s.
Although we did not know each other before we met at NASA in 1984, there are similarities between our lives. We were both inspired by high school teachers to study science. Sally chose astrophysics; I chose nuclear physics. Like me, I’m sure Sally didn’t grow up believing she would someday be an astronaut. For us and for other young girls of our generation, some careers were declared out of bounds by legislation and regulation. Regardless of ability, women simply were not allowed. Sally was well on her way to becoming a research scientist when NASA announced that the first group of Space Shuttle astronauts would include women. Sally applied, was selected, and joined five other women and 29 men in the 1978 class of NASA astronauts. I followed six years later, bringing the number of women astronauts to 11.
I am often asked if Sally inspired me to become an astronaut. The truth is there were no female astronauts to inspire or influence my choices as I was growing up. Our role models and mentors in science were men. I cannot say if it was due to upbringing or just luck, but both Sally and I missed the “girls can’t do science” message , or maybe we even took it as a challenge. We followed our interests in physics when most girls didn’t. We were fortunate to have established ourselves as scientists when NASA opened their doors to women, and we had the necessary credentials to be selected as astronauts.
Sally became a celebrity as one of the first women astronauts and the first to fly in space. After her illustrious NASA career, she chose to use her celebrity to inspire children, especially young girls, to study science and to achieve their full potential. Thousands of girls have participated in Sally Ride Science Festivals over the past decade and have had their dreams forever shaped by the experience.
Girls today have many more female role models in science and engineering than Sally and I did, women who have forged a path for them and who have shown that girls absolutely can do science and do it with distinction. Sally Ride, an icon for women’s achievements in science and engineering, will always stand out as one of the most famous and most influential positive role models of our time.
Guest Author Dr. Kathryn Thornton
Dr. Kathryn Thornton is a lead author of Pearson’s K-8 Interactive Science program. She flew on four Space Shuttle flights from 1989-1995, spending a total of more than 975 hours in space. Dr. Thornton is currently a professor in the Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at the University of Virginia.
Additional Resources for Girls and STEM
Research shows that the key to keeping girls engaged in science and STEM is to connect them with real-world role models and mentors. FabFems helps young girls connect with other female STEM professionals.
Engineer Girl, founded by The National Academy of Engineering (NAE), features contests, an interactive gallery of female STEM professionals, games, career advice, and more for girls and women interested in STEM.
National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP) is a non-profit group looking to reach girl-serving STEM organizations. Here you can find a collaborative in your neighborhood, submit a program of your own, or connect with STEM partners and resources.