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Sally Ride's Public And Private Life Shared In New Biography

July 9, 2014 1:09 p.m.

Sally Ride's Public Work And Private Life Shared In New Biography


Lynn Sherr, author, "Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space"

Related Story: Sally Ride's Public And Private Life Shared In New Biography


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. The public work and the private life of one of America's space pioneers is the subject of a new biography. It is one with a special resonance for San Diego. Astronaut Sally Ride spent the last decades of her life here in San Diego, working to promote opportunities for girls in science. She was a special guest at KPBS on several occasions. The writer doing the exploration of this American hero was also her close friend. Journalist and former ABC correspondent Lynn Sherr is here to talk about her new book, "Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space." Welcome to the program.

LYNN SHERR: Thank you Maureen, I am very happy to be here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You were very good friends with Sally Ride, how did you two first meet?

LYNN SHERR: We first met in 1981 when I was first assigned by ABC news to assist the team covering what was then the upcoming new space shuttle program. I went down to the Johnson Space Center in Houston and one of the first people that I met with Sally. The two of us just hit it off, and I covered her for years. But we also remained close friends. She and her then husband traveled with my husband and me. We spent a lot of time together, she used to stay with me in New York all of the time. We had a thirty year friendship.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Wow. Did she want to make history as the first American woman in space back in 1983? Or was that an afterthought?

LYNN SHERR: She had absolutely no desire to be the first American woman in anything. She had no desire as a child to be an astronaut, and guess why? Because women could not be astronauts until NASA in 1976 finally realized with the new space shuttle program they could have more people on the cruise and they could have scientists as well as pilots, fighter pilots and military guys. Sally grew up wanting to be a scientist and a tennis player, she gave up tennis, and decided she wanted to be a scientist. She did tell her best friend in high school that she wanted to be famous because she wanted to win the Nobel Prize.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Almost the Nobel Prize copying the first American woman in space. Remind us what spaceflight, Sally Ride being in space, meant to women and girls at the time.

LYNN SHERR: I think it was such an exciting touchstone for so many women around the world particularly in this country. I think what happened was, this was of course June 1983 when Sally was the first of six women astronauts in that first class of shuttle astronauts chosen to be the first American woman in space. The first were two Russian astronauts, one in 1963 and one in 1982, but we did not know very much about them. The US program was always much more transparent by design. We knew who our people were, we knew the successes and the failures, and Sally was the most famous person on the planet for a while. She was on the cover of every magazine, and everybody wanted to know about Sally Ride. I think what happened, women, particularly young women translated Sally's bold journey into their own tickets to success. If she could do that, they said, if she could burst through that celestial glass ceiling, then I can do anything. This is what happened, she became the icon, the role model, they can do spirit. Not only for NASA, the former boys club, but for anything. It was a way for women to say I could get out of the typing pool in 1983, I could get into medical school, I could do anything I want, look what she did. That is the model that she was for us.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When you look at a professional career in total, there was a great affection that she had for NASA and the opportunities that NASA gave her. As you document in the book, several years later during the investigation of the Challenger disaster, you write about that episode in the book and how her personal feelings about NASA really changed. Tell us about that.

LYNN SHERR: Sally really believed in NASA. She understood fully that she had flown because of the government agency at taxpayer expense. She was the beneficiary of all that good stuff and she wanted to give back. She was a very private, shy, introverted person. There she was suddenly out in the public stage giving tens of thousands of public speeches per year, she had to psych herself up for everyone. But she understood that, and that was fine for her. When the Challenger explosion happened, she was devastated along with everybody else. But personally, she knew the astronauts who were killed very well. These were people in her class of astronauts with whom she had eaten, studied, worked, played, she knew these people very well. Judy Resnick sat in the seat, right behind the commander and pilot, exactly where Sally sat, where she flew twice in the Challenger. She often said I realize what Judy was seeing and going through when it happened. Yes, she started to lose faith and she was one of the first to figure out part of the problem was about failed decision-making policies within NASA, not all managers, but many. This really upset her, because that's a has policies and you go down a checklist, and things are done in order. For that flight in January 1986 they did not follow their own procedures, and this upset her terribly.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And she was one of the first ones to acknowledge that fact, that NASA had not provided the kind of management knowledge or guidance that would have prevented that disaster.

LYNN SHERR: Absolutely right, and she provided, and I discovered this for the first time when I was working on the book, one of the earliest clues to what really happened. She was right there, she saw it. She got that information out, and never took any credit for it, it was all no fingerprints, she had been passed secret documents and she did not want the person who gave them to her to get fired. She figured out a way to get the information out, and more importantly, to work it out so that NASA would make the changes that it needed to make so it would be better in the future. She did not want to destroy NASA, she wanted it better so that what would keep flying.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That was her and with NASA, and she did come to San Diego and taught physics at UC San Diego, and I think most importantly, she founded the company Sally Ride Science. Her commitment to girls science education came out in that. That was the primary effort of her life after NASA, was it not?

LYNN SHERR: Think it was. She always had something in mind and she wasn't sure what it was. She worked in an arms control think tank at Stanford, she taught at UCSD and loved teaching. But putting together the company with her partners was really the culmination of what she wanted to do. She was happy to be first, not her goal, she was happy to be the first American woman in space but she did not want to be the only one. She wanted to open all of the doors so that little girls could know that they could do anything with their lives. Sally Ride Science is mostly aimed at middle school girls, and to get them interested in it and committed to math, science, technology, so we'll have future generations of chemists, future leaders and astronauts, Sally just wanted to give back. Maureen, it was not just about getting more astronauts and more girls in science, it was that she wanted to awaken them to the beauty and joy of science. Sally loved science. She saw magic in it. She wanted them to understand that science is not something that you do in a basement all by yourself in a white lab coat, with funny hair like Einstein. It is a group effort, a team project, you can laugh and have fun and do great work.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sally Ride, as we all know now had a same-sex partner, Tamara O'Shaughnessy. But while she was alive, very few people knew about this relationship. What were the reasons that she kept this so private?

LYNN SHERR: Sally never talked about that. Sally never gave a straight answer to why she wanted to keep their relationship private or secret, pick your favorite word. I now know that some of it was because she was protecting NASA and the astronaut office. This was a very socially conservative agency, and she did not want it to affect them. There was so much that she was fighting for in other areas, about getting women to do things about continuing human spaceflight, and I think that was one of the factors. She also was an intensely private individual. She spoke at forcefully for women's rights, for science education, for protecting planet Earth, all things that were important to her. I believe that if she had come out as an openly gay astronaut, that in fact she would have no privacy left. The idea of being the poster child was probably too much for her. In fact, she was married to Steve Holly, a fellow astronaut at NASA when she flew, they got divorced five years later, and the relationship with Tam, I think she understood it would not work if she stayed at NASA. My hunch is that is one of the reasons that she retired from NASA in 1987.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Since she was so intensely private, do you feel that you are telling things that she would rather not have known in this book?

LYNN SHERR: There is no question that Sally Ride did not want this book done when she was alive. She never wanted a grown-up biography, there are a bunch of children's biographies out there. She never wanted a full-fledged biography. And of course, I did not think about writing until after she had died. Of course I did not get to interview her about the biography, even though I had interviewed her dozens of times during her life. I have been kidding around and saying what is going to happen when I run into Sally up in heaven, is she going to be gunning for me, or is she going to say thank you very much, you did a great job? Her family all believes I have done the right story and that this is the Sally that they knew. I am convinced that I told her story in a way that she would be proud of, but I also believe she will probably tell me I got something wrong.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As you document in the book, Sally paves the way for women in space, but America's space program is sort of in limbo now. Do you think as a nation that maybe we have lost some enthusiasm for space exploration?

LYNN SHERR: I think we have definitely, and it is also something that has happened at periods throughout our space history. The last man left the moon in 1972 in December 1972. At that point, public interest was totally waning. It was nothing like when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. We then had a couple of programs that Apollo saw used with the former enemy the Soviets, and we were suddenly getting friendly. We had Skylab, the first space stations, but there was just not a lot of interest. The shuttle was a way to rev up interest, do something different, there was huge interest for the first couple of flights, huge interest for Sally's flights. But it started to wane even then thirty-one years ago. So I think that we have a very short attention span as a society. I think that is too bad. I also think it is too bad that we do not have the commitment from Congress or the White House representatives. The president is very much in favor for space exploration, but we do not have the push to get out there. NASA is kind of trying a lot of different things. We are all lost in space, a lot of people are saying. I think it is too bad, I know it is something that Sally would want to keep pushing forward on, but I think we will get back there. I think we have other priorities at the moment, but I would certainly like to see us back in space.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Considering what you have just said, you know, that our attention span is short and our enthusiasm for space exploration is not what it used to be. Sally Ride is not as well known a name as it used to be. When I tell you that I have thirty seconds left, I think you know what I mean, but what do you think if you could encapsulate it for me? What do you think is her legacy?

LYNN SHERR: Her legacy is the next generations of girls and boys who will carry on a love of science, who will follow in Sally's footsteps and understand that they can do anything.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want everyone to know that Lynn will be discussing her book, ìSally Ride: America's First Woman in Spaceî at Warwick's bookstore in La Jolla tonight. It has been a pleasure to meet you, thank you for coming in.

LYNN SHERR: My pleasure Maureen, it was great to be with you.