An intrepid astronaut, a champion of the little guy during both the shuttle-crash investigations, a natural teacher and role-model for every American—if you heard a talking head start out that way, you might be forgiven for assuming the media-speaker was talking about a man. After all, most of our brave soldiers and daring explorers, so far, have been men. They fit neatly into our delusions about ourselves, and our country, being brave, noble, and caring.
Once you heard ‘Sally Ride’, though, you’d think, ‘aha! That’s the female astronaut! Such a great role-model for girls…’ And again, you’d naturally assume that Ms. Ride did nothing in her life other than be a female astronaut—after all, such a great achievement is enough for anyone to have as their legacy. Oddly enough, however, Ms. Ride didn’t see herself that way at all—she always preferred others to think of her as the youngest astronaut ever-which she was.
Our foolishness, as a group, can’t help but see her as a female first rather than a youngest first. Ms. Ride focused, quite correctly, on the fact that she was the youngest person ever to go to space—man or woman, she had more forward thrust than any other ‘naut. We’ve become used to these kinds of paradoxes, because human nature is very stubbornly biased towards the outer appearance of a man or woman as opposed to their strength of mind or will or soul.
Ms. Ride was a nationally-ranked tennis player and earned a Bachelor’s in both English Lit (Shakespeare) and Physics before she ever saw the newspaper ad calling for astronaut-volunteers (Yes, that’s really how she began her NASA career). Her Stanford Masters and PhD degrees for astrophysics and lasers were just the first stepping stones on her journey into our history.
The two women who preceded the first American female were the Soviet Cosmonauts—Valentina Tereshkova (in 1963—six years before Apollo 11 went to the Moon) and Svetlana Savitskaya (in 1982, the year before Sally’s ride). Again we Americans show a twisted kind of pride in our first female American in space, while pretending to ignore that it took the US decades longer than the supposedly-more-restrictive Soviets to include women in the flight program.
But this is just a sample of the gripes I have about what’s happening in the USA right now—I was moved to write about Sally Ride because she represents many of the mistakes we make as a society. Firstly, she was a great person and an exceptional one, yet media attention went to scandals and scams and the latest little fad—before her unfortunate leave-taking five days ago, no one had mentioned her name in the national media since the day after she disembarked from her second, final flight in 1984.
Ms. Ride’s contributions to the Shuttle Robot Arm’s development in the years just prior to her first flight were rewarded by her being the first person to ever capture a satellite with the Robot Arm. Despite eight months of training towards her third space flight, the shuttle, Challenger ‘s deadly accident (her vehicle for both prior flights) stopped all scheduled flights—and—she was chosen to be part of the Rogers Commission Report and to head that inquiry’s sub-committee on Operations.
Roger Boisjoly, the whistleblower who warned of the O-ring problem before the flight, had been sent to Coventry by both Morton-Thiokol and NASA as a ‘troublemaker’. He experienced first-hand Ms. Ride’s hugeness of spirit when she publicly embraced him during that media firestorm. She easily saw through the short-sightedness of sacrificing safety to financial and political pressure. She also knew how important the man’s honesty was, and how important it was for the USA to get behind that kind of selflessness.
In 2003, Ms. Ride was asked to be part of the Columbia accident investigation—making her the only person to sit on both Shuttle disaster inquiries. In between those two, horrible events, Sally Ride arranged for cameras to be set-up on the ISS—allowing schoolchildren across the nation to take their own pictures of Earth from space (something I’m quite sure was left off my school’s curricula, back in the day). But that was just another good thing of all the good things this tremendous lady tossed to the rest of us on a nearly daily basis. I’m tempted to just cut-and-paste her entire Wikipedia article—just one page, but each line a piece of history and proof of Ms. Ride’s ennobling of our nation’s history, and of the women who live here.
How disappointing her last years must have been—America becoming so low-ranked in Science education, our media more interested in covering some damaged young lady flashing her privates leaving her limo for a night-club’s front door, our politics become a good impression of a Three Stooges act, our economy being destroyed by the people who most benefit from it! Her starry-eyed dedication to a nation that was once less proud, but much more worthy of pride—a place where science would do more than generate revenue, where science would be a factor in our noble search for a more perfect union. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if she cried for this country, at some time, in her last years.
And now we come to the most pitiful part—Sally Ride was a lesbian. She spent that entire, amazing life keeping secret her most private self—because we are too stupid to let it go. People are gay, some of them—can’t we just move on? No, we can’t—just a few days ago a greasy-spoon fast-food franchise announced that their position on gays was that ‘homosexuality was ungodly and wrong’, period. Then, when more sensible people got upset about it, this company leader accused his critics of trampling on his freedom of speech!
Someone I know called this ‘family values’ today. I couldn’t help but point out that ‘family values’ had no definition, and was code for ‘My hate speech is okay, because I read the Bible’. This bothers me no end. First of all, the corporate executive who promotes this public support of bigotry is, by inference, including all his employees and franchisees in that policy. Call me a cock-eyed optimist, but I think that there could well be at least one clear-minded, civilized person in that group that would much prefer to speak for his- or her- self.
The trouble with an ideal, such as ‘liberty and justice for all’, is that one lone scumbag can screw up the entire thing—by taking advantage of everyone else’s good intentions. Lies are also harmful to a free society, as are graft, corruption, sexual harassment, gay-bashing, evangelical fascism, and Ponzi schemes.
When the far-right tries to defend its position against pluralism by citing ‘freedom of religion’, they know as well as we do that it’s nonsense—keeping one religion from defining our legislative guidelines is not an offense against the ideal of ‘separation of church and state’. It is simply accepting the fact that, even if it were true that our country began as an English colony talking about different Protestant sects, the rules don’t change when you don’t like the other person’s religion. Just as when we accepted ‘all men are created equal’, in spite of a clear inequality by both race and sex in 1776, we continue to refine our society toward following the truth of our words, rather than the truth of our baser traditions.
Much like the embrace of commercial success by televangelists, today’s religious institutions seem to have put aside their scruples over the means to their ends. Violence, propaganda, and obfuscation are good weapons to use against a society under pressure—not that we’ve never seen pressure before, as a nation—but we never expected our ‘spiritual institutions’ to lead the charge against honesty and good will, mercy and compassion.
I could type forever and those who hear me already know and agree, but those against my position will find sloppy connections between my words, here, and something ‘evil’, they will still speak with forked tongue on the subject of social justice. It’s impressive, really, in a way—who woulda thought that talking non-stop bull and shouting slogans, instead of being straightforward, was a good way to convince one’s followers that one has an open mind? It’s insane.
I can only suppose that these people are ignorant or just plain lazy-minded—just tell them what they want to believe and ignore the facts completely, and they’ll support you with such malice and venom that, in the end, the rest of us will be near despair, on the cusp of futility. And if it’s breaking the heart of this foolish typist, I can only imagine how badly it pained one of our great, though mostly ignored, heroes, the superlative Sally Ride.