Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space: A Review

Sherr, L. (2014). Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space. Simon & Schuster, New York.

Sally Ride is an icon, an American heroine, yet also a figure cloaked in mystery.  Her friend, journalist Lynn Sherr, has taken it upon herself to reveal the public, private, and secret world of the first American female astronaut in the biography about Dr. Ride.  The title I believe is appropriate to how Dr. Ride saw life: direct, with no excessive details.  Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space reveals as much as it can about the woman who broke barriers but still kept the world far more distant in her life than she was when she floated among the stars. 

Sally Kristen Ride, the oldest of two sisters, came from a family that encouraged intellectual pursuits and did not hold the idea that a person's gender held one back from anything.  In fact, the only time Sally was told she couldn't do something because she was a 'girl' was when she was told that she couldn't play for her beloved Los Angeles Dodgers.

No matter, as she found a true passion in tennis, playing fiercely and well enough to seriously consider a future as a professional (even going up against legendary tennis player Billie Jean King, who would become a friend and a sort of mentor in business years later).  Ride, however, also had an analytical mind, and had a tremendous passion for science.  If asked to find the term that best described her, she would answer "physicist", loving the logic of the natural sciences.

Ride would not think that being an astronaut would be within possibility until 1978, when while studying at Stanford, she saw a notice in the school newspaper announcing that NASA was looking for female astronauts.  Ride sent her application, and was accepted as part of a new class that dubbed itself TFNG (Thirty-Five New Guys, though Sherr states it really came from another, less flattering term).  The TFNG had six women and four minorities: three African-Americans and one Asian-American.

The class went through a battery of tests, drills, and training, and ultimately, Ride's mastery of the Remote Manipulator System (RMS), the robotic arm that would dispatch material from the shuttle, that got her into history.

After her successful trips, she retired, slightly disillusioned with NASA's bungling that led to the Challenger disaster, but still enthusiastic as she enters a new phase: academia.  She launches a new venture (no pun intended): to bring more interest to children in studying science and making it a career, in particular girls.  Ultimately she uses her name and cache to create Sally Ride Science, which sets out to bring girls and boys into an interest in the sciences.

Sadly, Sally Ride was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died in 2012 shortly after her sixty-first birthday.

As Sherr was a friend of Ride, she brings her own insight into Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space.  She also benefits greatly from having the full cooperation of all the Ride family: Sally's mother Joyce, sister Karen (better known as 'Bear' due to the young Sally's inability to say 'Karen' and reducing it to first 'Pear' then 'Bear'), and most importantly, Ride's longtime partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy, with whom Ride spent the last twenty-seven years of her life.

Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space touches on Rides' very private life: her early lesbian relationships, her marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley, and her life with O'Shaughnessy.  What Sherr finds frustrating is that Ride herself never wrote down her own feelings on topics, what she felt about love and romance.  This must make getting a fuller picture of any subject frustrating, but Sherr confirms what she sensed in all her interactions with Dr. Ride: that ultimately Sally Ride was a very private person, not one to look back, or perhaps, look within.

Throughout the book, Ride's unwillingness or inability to express emotion publicly or even to others appears almost as a hindrance, forever keeping the subject just a little opaque, even after her death maintaining some semblance of the privacy she yearned for despite her history-making journey.  However, once Ride is diagnosed, the cracks in her guarded nature begin to show.  It is now, as she comes close to death, that Ride starts slowly making strides towards acknowledging her longtime partner.

This isn't to say that Ride was ever 'in the closet' to where her lesbian or bisexuality was a closely guarded secret.  She travelled with O'Shaughnessy, lived with her, and even shared matching rings.  However, through almost all their time together, Ride did not introduce O'Shaughnessy as her 'partner', her 'girlfriend', or her 'companion', or any euphemism that would have indicated a romantic relationship.  Sherr speculates that seeing their friend Billie Jean King so publicly outed, and the damage that the revelation had on her business ventures, may have influenced their decision.

It is speculation because to a point, even O'Shaughnessy was not able to penetrate the strong guard of privacy that Ride had with everyone.  My view is that Ride simply wanted a private life, a space all to her own, where she didn't have to explain herself.  She already had a corner of history due to her historic flight (though Ride was technically speaking, the third woman in space). 

As such, it is reading how Ride, as she battled her cancer, started chipping away at her own remoteness that moves one.  Ride decided to register with O'Shaughnessy as 'domestic partners', something that she didn't need to do as she had already granted her partner the right of inheritance.  For me though, the most poignant moment is when Ride told her longtime partner how she wished they could have another twenty-seven years together, a remarkable declaration given how Ride had in all their time together told Tam that she measured their relationship in terms of five or ten years, not a lifetime.  That admission of just how important her longtime partner was to her made Sally Ride, emotional recluse, touchingly human.

Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space is, mercifully, not a total hagiography. It is certainly very sympathetic to the subject, but it also does not shrink from pointing out that Ride could at times be unpleasant.  She could cut people off whom she considered having betrayed some trust (though to be fair, this is about the only flaw I can remember Ride having). 

Sherr doesn't condemn or criticize her for that, nor does she condemn Ride for not revealing her sexuality until after her death or even the fact that her longtime companion endured a somewhat ambivalent relationship (or that they had no children because Sally wished it so, whatever O'Shaughnessy's wishes). 

Sympathetic is the best term for Sherr's biography.  It isn't fawning, it isn't critical.

The scientific terms are well-explained without being complicated, which is good for the laymen who don't follow NASA-speak. 

About the only real flaw in Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space is the occasional snarky asides Sherr cannot resist adding.  When commenting on the issue of 'bodily waste differences between men and women in space', Sherr writes the following:

The bodily waste issue was more than timely.  Sally was following closely the campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which would go down to defeat two months later thanks, in part, to the fuss kicked up by Phyllis Schafly over the specter of unisex restrooms.  You know, like the ones in airplanes.  Or in your home. (Emphasis mine).

There is a mocking tone to Sherr's lines, clearly revealing the contempt she has for those who disagree with her (like the late Schafly).  I don't agree with Schafly, but I also think Sherr could have rephrased this part or cut it out completely, sticking to placing objections like toilets in space in context of the times and era.  She does this well when discussing such things as the 'good old boys' mentality within NASA from almost its inception or how the public at the beginning of the space race didn't conceive of the idea of an 'astronette'.  When Sherr interjects her own contempt for those who disagree with her, it takes away from the subject and puts attention on Lynn Sherr herself, and she doesn't come across as capable of being truly objective.

Minor flaw though it is, a flaw it remains.

Ultimately though, Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space is as close to a definitive biography as we are likely to get on this true American heroine.  Sally Ride's place in history is not just assured, but preserved with as great an insight into this private woman as we will ever have outside a successful séance.  Sally Ride's life was devoted to exploration and breaking down barriers, to show that science was not just for 'men in white coats', but that it could be both a career for women and moreover, fun.

Sally Ride remains a heroine, an icon, and a woman any young girl (and yes, boy) should look up to and admire.  Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space, does Dr. Ride tremendous credit in keeping her memory alive, letting us see as much as possible and giving us not just greater insight into Sally Ride the persona, but Sally Ride the person. 

P.S.  While I'm sure Dr. Ride and Ms. Sherr would not approve of this, being a cheeky American I'm going to do it anyway.  Should anyone criticize me, well, get over it.