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
Ride: America’s First Woman in Space (Simon
& Shuster; 374 pages; $28.00).
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.”
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.
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