D. Dowd Muska


A Space-Based Feminist Morality Play

June 19, 2014

Sally Ride was smart and gutsy. She earned a Ph.D. in physics from a premier university and made the dangerous journey to and from orbit twice.

But Ride wasn’t irreproachable. She had traits unsavory as well as virtuous. Those looking for a perceptive assessment of her life won’t find it in Lynn Sherr’s cloying, bromide-ridden Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space (Simon & Shuster; 374 pages; $28.00).

An accomplished tennis player -- going pro was a real possibility -- Ride earned three degrees in physics from Stanford. The native Californian applied to NASA in 1977. Beating long odds, she joined Astronaut Group 8, the first class assembled since the Apollo era, and the first to include women. Ride, a workaholic, aced the training regimen. Her mastery of the “Canadarm,” a tool to deploy and retrieve payloads, got noticed. In April 1982, she was selected, over five female competitors, to fly on the seventh shuttle mission.

Sherr, an “award-winning ABC-TV News correspondent for more than thirty years,” met Ride while on the NASA beat. The journalist accurately conveys just how gaga the country went over the pioneering astro-crat. There were countless media profiles. A National Press Club luncheon. Sally Ride Day in Sacramento. The keys to New York City. And an offer “to sit for a portrait of herself in jellybeans.”

The attention wasn’t welcome. Ride was “a severely private person.” And a liberal, quota-demanding feminist. She refused to appear on Bob Hope’s 25th anniversary salute to NASA because, Sherr writes, the freshly minted icon “wasn’t a fan of Hope’s politics or his use of showgirls as props.” Her then-husband recalls that Ride “felt like she was being forced to do things that she didn’t believe in, and were for the benefit of causes and individuals she did not support.”

So Ride was an introvert who, a high school friend reveals, “wanted to be famous,” and a federal employee who expected to be independent from her bosses’ political maneuverings. The hypocrisies are largely lost on Sherr, whose ideology renders the author nearly incapable of finding any faults in her subject.

Ride left NASA not long after the Challenger disaster, and accepted a two-year fellowship at the Center for International Security and Arms Control, “trying to keep the world from blowing itself up.” With manned spaceflight of so little scientific value, Stanford passed on adding her to its prestigious faculty. Seeking a marquee name, the University of California, San Diego offered a job as “professor of physics (with tenure)” and director of the California Space Institute, “the statewide coordinator for space-related research throughout the UC system.”

When Ride left Houston, she also ditched her husband, astronaut Steven Hawley. She had been cheating on him, with a woman, for two years. (And had never disclosed the lengthy same-sex relationship she had while at Stanford.) Tam O’Shaughnessy was an acquaintance from “the junior tennis circuit.” Their new bond stuck, and the two lived together until Ride’s untimely death from pancreatic cancer in 2012. A decade earlier, they cofounded Sally Ride Science, with the rather laughable goals of fostering “girls’ natural interests in science and technology,” and forcing “a change in cultural perceptions of girls and women in these endeavors.”

Sally Ride is sure to sell briskly in NASA communities. It’s probable that Sherr, once an eager semifinalist for the Journalist-In-Space program, has never read anything about the agency that its notorious PR shop didn’t write. The Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building is “big enough to generate its own weather system, a cathedral of technology with a built-in heaven,” and the nation’s space bureaucracy “regularly creates miracles.” (Blech.) Ride’s valuable participation in the commissions that investigated the Challenger and Columbia tragedies is dutifully chronicled. But neither the Space Transportation System’s extravagant expenditures nor its role in hobbling the development of a commercial space sector are probed. Duke University’s Alex Roland called the shuttle “the world’s most expensive, least robust, and most deadly launch vehicle,” but in Sherr’s view, since it sent women (and male minorities, of course) into space, the benefits outweighed the costs.

Written by a doctrinaire feminist, about a doctrinaire feminist, Sherr’s book will also be required reading for scores of “women’s studies” students. Potential topic for discussion: Sally’s breakthrough came more than three decades ago. But of the space shuttle’s final ten flights, 53 of 63 crew members were men. Is NASA as misogynistic as ever?

Sally Ride was a complicated woman. Too bad Lynn Sherr prefers insipid dogma to nuanced biography.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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