When Sally Ride broke through the Earth’s atmosphere in 1983 aboard the space shuttle Challenger, becoming the first American woman in space, she simultaneously broke down another barrier as well.
Ride was a symbol to millions of American girls who dreamed of becoming physicists, astronomers and mathematicians but were constantly held back by issues of gender stronger than any gravitational pull.
The NASA astronaut, who died on July 23 after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer, reached out to girls across the country with her educational organization Sally Ride Science, founded in 2001 on the idea of stimulating interest in science and mathematics for young boys and girls.
Tracy Becker was one of those girls. Although Ride made her first flight before Becker was born, that didn’t stop her from immediately looking up to Ride as a role model when she first became interested in astronomy at 8 years old. Becker now works at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico as a UCF graduate student studying planetary science. She identifies Ride as her primary inspiration to pursue her interests and passion just as the astronaut herself did.
“I admired her for her bravery and intelligence, and I wanted to be just like her,” Becker said in an email. “While I may have wanted to do the same things as other astronauts, like walk on the moon as Neil Armstrong had, Sally Ride was the first astronaut I could say I wanted to be like. I wanted to be a female scientist exploring the universe, just like Dr. Ride.”
Saddened by the news of Ride’s death, Becker instantly thought of those whose Ride’s legacy had touched, namely a group of fourth-grade girls who had the chance to meet with Ride at their school. Becker worked with the girls closely before and after Ride’s visit, emphasizing that after they listened to Ride speak about pursuing goals and studying math and science, they were more eager to work in those fields of study than ever before.
“Without a U.S. human space exploration program, personal visits and inspiring tales from former astronauts remain the next best way to inspire our youth to work and study hard, especially in math and science, in order to achieve some truly remarkable dreams,” Becker said.
Ride served as a mission specialist on her first mission, STS-7, and made another mission aboard Challenger in 1984. Before she could embark on a third, Challenger exploded in a tragic accident in 1987, killing all seven crew members, and she left NASA one year later. She served on the investigative boards for the Challenger explosion as well as for the loss of Columbia and its crew in 2003.
Elena Flitsiyan, the undergraduate program director for UCF’s Department of Physics, said that Ride will be remembered more for the passion and curiosity she instilled in children, noting that she published five popular science books specifically written for younger ages.
“As a scientist, she put a lot of effort toward improving science education in the United States, toward developing programs that would attract young people and especially women to fields such as physics, technology and math,” Flitsiyan said.
Kaitlyn McDonald, a junior forensic science major, credits Ride’s achievements with making her feel more comfortable in a laboratory setting, which had been mostly dominated by males.
“At my old middle school, most of the guys in the lab were guys, and all the science teachers were too,” McDonald said. “Reading about what Ride had done, the more I learned about her, the more the tension I felt in a lab just melted away. That’s the kind of legacy she leaves for me.”
Becker agrees that Ride’s determination and intelligence paved the way for women everywhere to become involved and be taken seriously in scientific fields, but she still thinks that Ride will always be remembered for that first spaceflight.
“I think the most important thing young women can learn from her is the very thing she spoke about in her outreach programs across the nation; girls and women should never avoid science and mathematics because it may make them different from their peers,” Becker said. “They should embrace whatever it is that interests them, and with that passion, they may be able to achieve some incredible dreams.”