A few weeks later (I forget the exact date although I suppose I could look it up somewhere), I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Sally Ride, America’s first woman astronaut who went into space. Dr. Ride had been scheduled to give a talk at Radcliffe, and as the talk was open to everyone, including Harvard students, I made a point of attending. I was a sophomore Physics major, and also a space enthusiast, even if I had been born too late to appreciate the Apollo program and the Moon landings. Like many of my generation, the shuttle program was ours, and we followed it with the fervor a previous generation had followed Mercury and Gemini.
The auditorium was filled, of course, but not overflowing, and I was surprised that an astronaut of her stature had not brought out even more people. As it was, Dr. Ride was there to speak about the role of and opportunities for women in science, and her visit had been advertised mostly by posters in the Yard. It’s possible that some who might have attended just didn’t know, or weren’t interested in the topic. It’s too bad for them, for they missed an amazing and enthusiastic talk.
The first thing I remember about seeing Sally Ride was how incredibly, well, slight and tiny she was. Her presence had loomed large when the media reported on her. I recall that she was featured on the cover of People magazine, with huge 1980s-style hair, and I guess in my mind she was this towering figure. I was shocked to discover that she was so much smaller than I, given how insignificant I felt in her presence. But she more than made up for it with her eyes. One look into her eyes and you could tell this was an astronaut with the sharpest mind in the program.
Ride began her talk by apologizing, but given recent events she was less interested in sticking to the topic advertised and more interested in discussing the space program. And she did, using the launch of Discovery as a springboard to explain how important a manned space program was for the country and the human race in general.
There was a Q&A session at the end of the talk, and somehow I gathered up the courage to approach the microphone and ask her a question. I even recall my question, one quite fitting for the science fiction geek that I am. I asked Ride why NASA hadn’t chosen to refurbish Enterprise instead of spending the money to build a brand new shuttle; wouldn’t it have been cheaper? Ride gently explained to me that the Enterprise was actually little better than a balsa wood model and it would have taken even more money to make it ready for space.
After the talk ended, Dr. Ride said she would stick around for more questions, and I was one of a group that gathered closer for more conversation. Now comes the part I’ve always been proud of. Among the group of us was this guy, much larger than either Dr. Ride or myself, who kept trying to get her attention by calling her “Sally.” This annoyed me on her behalf. Perhaps he felt a certain familiarity with her because he felt he knew her from the media, but I thought it was disrespectful. This was a woman who had earned a Ph.D. from studying astrophysics and lasers; she deserved to be addressed properly. I spoke over this man, called her “Dr. Ride,” and I was pleased when he followed my lead and began calling her Dr. Ride as well. When that happened, she flashed me a quick smile, and I like to think I did a tiny bit that day to promote the cause of women in science.
I never met Dr. Ride again, but I continued to draw inspiration from her life story. I’ll be sure to share it with my daughters when they are old enough. I might not be a woman, but Dr. Ride was just as much as role model for me.
May she soar in peace.