Yesterday, America lost a great science communicator in Sally Ride, who died at the age of 61 after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Ride was the first American woman to fly in space, but her accomplishments on Earth — touring the nation motivating young women to pursue the sciences — may be her legacy.
After her space flights in 1983 and 1984, which inspired a generation of young girls to dream of previously unconsidered career paths, Ride reinforced their ambitions by speaking to them — and young men — about their interests in science, math and technology.
Following her NASA career, Ride established a nonprofit organization, Sally Ride Science, and spoke at schools around the nation challenging young people to take advantage of their science education in primary and secondary schools, college and beyond. Through telling her own story, Ride communicated her commitment and passion for science and engineering. She presented herself as living proof that, regardless of “glass ceilings,” anyone can grow up to be a scientist, engineer or even an astronaut.
Her words and passion inspired future astronaut Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, who flew on one of the last NASA shuttle flights.
In a 2009 ABC News interview, Metcalf-Lindenburger recalled watching those trailblazing space flights as a kid in elementary school and noted Ride’s impact on her life, “I grew up during the shuttle age, so I was really excited in the second grade when [the United States] started flying the shuttle and I remember watching that in our class. Somehow I realized that women could become astronauts.”
How grateful we are that Ride participated in those shuttle flights nearly 30 years ago. But we are as grateful that she was a science communicator maverick. Her greatest accomplishment may be that she spent her life sharing her first-hand account of the importance and impact of the pursuit of science, and encouraged millions of young people to reach for the stars, and even travel amongst them one day.