US-RSE Pride Month Spotlight - Sally Ride

Published: Jun 12, 2024 by Lance Parsons

US-RSE’s DEI working group (DEI-WG) is proud to help US-RSE celebrate and participate in Pride Month. Throughout June, the US-RSE will spotlight LGBTQ+ individuals who have been involved in computing, science, engineering, and/or math, and have inspired our members through their accomplishments in their careers and their personal stories.

This week’s Pride Month spotlight features Sally Ride

Sally Ride, NASA
Sally Ride, NASA

Many know Sally Ride as the first American Woman in space, a truly remarkable accomplishment. Not as many people know that Sally was also the first astronaut known to have been a member of the LGBTQ+ community. While she was married to astronaut Steven Hawley during her spaceflight years, her long-term relationship with Women’s Tennis Association player Tam O’Shaughnessy remained largely private until after Ride’s death in 2012.

Dr. Ride was a physicist and accepted into the space program in 1978, along with five other women in NASA Astronaut Group 8. The group’s name for itself was “TFNG”, which publicly stood for “Thirty-Five New Guys”, but inside the group it stood for “the f*cking new guy”.

Sally flew on the shuttle Challenger on June 18, 1983 and on a second mission in 1984. At age 32, she was the youngest American to fly into space. She later became the only person to sit on both the panels investigating the catastrophic shuttle accidents, the Challenger explosion in 1986, and the Columbia crash in 2003.

Dr. Ride leaned on her well known ability to keep cool under stress when speaking to reporters better for the first shuttle flight. She was subjected to a barrage of questions focused on her sex: Would spaceflight affect her reproductive organs? Did she plan to have children? Would she wear a bra or makeup in space? Did she cry on the job? How would she deal with menstruation in space? On “The Tonight Show”, Johnny Carson crudely joked that the shuttle would be delayed because Dr. Ride had to find a purse to match her shoes.

Only July 23, 2012, Sally Ride died in her home in La Jolla, CA after a battle with pancreatic cancer. It was during her fight with cancer that she and O’Shaughnessy registered their domestic partnership. Ride’s obituary was the first time it was publicly revealed that she and O’Shaughnessy had been partners for 27 years, making Ride the first known LGBTQ+ astronaut.

Shortly before she died, O’Shaughnessy asked Ride “Who am I going to be in the world?” to which Ride replied “Whatever you decide will be just fine.” O’Shaughnessy then realized that Sally was telling her to do what she thought was best, and that she needed to be true to herself. On coming out, O’Shaughnessy said “…it changed my life, and I wish Sally could experience that.”

More people are likely to learn about Dr. Ride’s story when a TV series The Challenger was released. Based on the book The New Guys by Meredith E. Bagby, the series tells the story of NASA Astronaut Group 8 through the Rogers Commission that investigated the Challenger disaster.