by Ray Locker)
More than 30 years after gaining the world's notice, Sally Ride remains an iconic figure, although her accomplishment remains a little fuzzy. First woman in space? No, that happened 20 years earlier with Valentina Tereshkova. First woman on the moon? No, that hasn't happened at all.
Ride was the first American woman in space, an accomplishment that becomes more important in the hands of Lynn Sherr writing in Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space. At a time when a woman is the leading candidate for president in 2016 and women routinely run nations and businesses, it is easy to forget a time when Ride's accomplishment was very big news.
"Sally Ride was not the first woman in orbit — two Russians had gotten there before her — but she was the first American woman in space, with the attendant publicity and allure of the free world," Sherr writes. "She also remains the youngest American ever launched. Her achievement, and the celebrity that resulted, captivated and inspired several generations of admirers. She was, briefly, the most famous person on the planet."
The NASA that Ride entered was a male-dominated culture rooted in the can-do world of military test pilots. The idea of a woman in space, Sherr writes, confounded many Americans. Astronaut Eileen Collins told Sherr she would occasionally encounter male pilots who thought, "If a woman can do it, then apparently I'm not as good as I think I am."
Ride and her five fellow women in the astronaut class of 1978 broke that barrier. One, Judith Resnik, gave her life to science when she died in the 1986 Challenger explosion. By routinely doing what was previously an all-male job, they made the pioneering normal.
It was a role Ride seemed born to play.
Sherr captures the early days of Ride's life and NASA career well. She was a driven California girl who loved tennis and her home state. She strove for success in science and found her calling at Stanford University. From there, she made the leap to NASA, where her intelligence and athleticism served her well.
Ride made history when she flew on the space shuttle in 1983 as a mission specialist. (She returned to space in 1984; both trips were on the ill-fated Challenger.)
That part of the biography is easy to read and seems easy to have reported. Many people worked with Ride and liked her. They took pride in her accomplishments and those of the other women astronauts.
Tougher to crack was Ride's private life. She was gay, which became public only after her death in 2012 at age 61 of pancreatic cancer. The challenges of being the first American woman in space, of starting her own company and advising presidents on space and science were enough for her; Ride did not feel compelled to be a pioneer in another area.
Sherr, a longtime ABC News correspondent who covered Ride's flight and knew her well, brings a confident, breezy tone to Ride's life story. Writing with the cooperation of Ride's family and her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy, Sherr knows her subject well, at least up to a point, she acknowledges. "The dots don't all connect in Sally Ride's life," Sherr writes.
"I am sorry that I didn't — still don't — know exactly what she thought she had to protect," Sherr writes. "I ache that her efforts to make social change through science couldn't always ease her own way. And that our society often makes it so difficult for people to be who they are. But the enduring love of family and close friends is a testament to her full and happy life."
It's a full and happy life that makes for a fast, fun read.
Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space
By Lynn Sherr
Simon & Schuster, 337 pp.
***out of four