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Sally Ride

Interview: Sally Ride
First American Woman in Space

June 2, 2006
Los Angeles, California

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To begin at the beginning, what was your childhood like, growing up in Southern California?

Sally Ride: Well, my childhood was probably the typical childhood for a kid growing up in Southern California in the '50s and early '60s. I loved being outside, I loved being active. I loved swimming, I loved playing tennis, I loved playing baseball in the street, and as it turns out, I also liked science and math, and I was probably fortunate in that both of my parents really valued education and they didn't have any sort of preconception on what sort of field I should go into. So they made sure that I spent plenty of time studying, but also trying to make it fun and trying to make it entertaining and trying to make me appreciate that it was a good way to get ahead in the world.

Were there a lot of preconceptions in that era about what you should be doing?

Sally Ride: There were a lot of preconceptions back then. I think that, whether in sports or whether in career choice, there were definitely preconceptions that girls didn't participate in sports other than swimming and tennis and golf. They probably didn't like them, or they would probably get hurt playing them or something, and that women didn't go on to become lawyers or doctors, much less scientists or engineers, and my parents, I think, were unusual in that they didn't hold those preconceptions.

Were you a good kid?

Sally Ride: I was a pretty good kid. I had my moments, but I was a pretty good kid.

How did you like school when you were growing up?

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Sally Ride: I liked some classes, I didn't like others. I looked forward to getting out of school every day, and getting onto the playground or getting home to play with my friends, but I didn't really mind going to school as much as some of my classmates did and as much as a lot of kids do.

What was difficult for you growing up?

Sally Ride: If you want to talk about school, history and English were difficult for me, science and math were easy. I was a quiet kid when I was growing up, and so I didn't really like to be called on in class. I think that my most stressful moments were probably sitting in class, huddled down, hoping that the teacher didn't notice me and call on me. Whether I knew the answer or not, that was irrelevant.

How do you account for that?

Sally Ride: I have no idea whether I am an introvert by nature or whether it was something to do with the times when I was growing up. Who knows? It was definitely true while I was in elementary school and middle school and even a little bit into high school.

In your recollection, were there teachers or books or events that inspired you or challenged you when you were growing up, that were important to you in one way or another?

Sally Ride: There were teachers along the way. I can think of three teachers that were very influential, and there were some events that were very influential.

I was growing up in the early days of the space program, and I can still remember teachers wheeling those big old black and white television sets into the classroom, so that we could watch some of the early space launches and splashdowns, and that made a real impact on me, as I think it did a lot of kids growing up at the time. I thought a lot about what it would be like to be on a rocket and what it would be like to be in space when I was 12 years old.

Were any of your girlfriends thinking about those things?

Sally Ride: It's interesting. I think a lot were. A lot of my girlfriends liked science as much as I did, especially at age 8, 9, 10, 11. We were all fascinated by the space program in one way or another, but I think that most of my friends ran into some obstacle or deterrent along the way that sent them off in different directions. It might have been a teacher, it might have been a counselor, it might have been a parent, it might have been a peer group. I was probably very fortunate not to run into those deterrents while I was impressionable and growing up.

What was it about these three teachers that you remember?

Sally Ride: The two who were most influential were high school science teachers. One taught physiology and one taught chemistry, and what was so important to me was not that they were good science teachers, they were, but I had plenty of other good teachers growing up. What was important to me was that they helped me build my confidence in myself, my self-esteem, and I needed that like lots of kids need it, and they basically said, "Look, you know, if you were good in math in sixth grade, you are going to be good in math in 12th grade, you are going to be good in math in college. You don't get dumber as you get older," and I needed to hear that and just have that confidence in myself that yes, I was smart enough to go on to college, and smart enough to go on and do whatever I was interested in, in college.

Were there any books that were important to you?

Sally Ride: There was that all-time classic Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Machine. I actually read a lot when I was growing up. I read all of the Nancy Drew mysteries when I was young. I read, as I said, the Danny Dunn series of science books. I read comic books, I read Mad magazine, and I also read Scientific American. My parents were not scientists and probably had no idea how to encourage a kid who was interested in science, so they decided, well, Scientific American would be a good thing to have in the house, so they subscribed to that. I remember reading that when I was 13, 14, 15, and I think that those are probably my strongest, strongest memories.

You were also a tennis player, weren't you?

Sally Ride: I was a good tennis player. I really enjoyed being outside. I really enjoyed playing sports and started playing tennis when I was about 11 and really got hooked on it, played in tournaments, first locally in Southern California, and then later, nationally, and spent every summer playing pretty serious tennis.

Did you ever consider that to be a career?

Sally Ride: Actually, I did, much to the dismay of my parents, I think, although they were both very supportive of tennis. When I headed off to college, I made the decision that tennis wasn't going to be the central point in my life.

I went off to Swarthmore and started college at Swarthmore College, and about a year and a half into my college experience, I decided, "What was I thinking? I should have been a professional tennis player," and I quit college, and that did not go over well with my parents, but I quit school and moved back to Southern California, and actually focused on tennis for about three months before I saw the light and transferred to Stanford, went back to school.

What was that like, leaving college?

Sally Ride: I was going to say it was one of those impulsive decisions, but it really wasn't.

I had this very, very strong feeling that I had something in me that I hadn't really explored, and it was, "How good a tennis player could I be? Could I be good enough to be a professional tennis player? There is no way I am going to find this out at Swarthmore College, and if I wait until after I graduate, it will likely be too late." So I thought about it for several weeks pretty seriously, because it was mid-year when I actually quit college, it was after the fall semester. But I was completely committed to doing that when I packed my bags and headed home. But fortunately, I took a long, hard look at my forehand and realized that I was not going to make a fortune with that forehand.

What did you do next?

Sally Ride: I transferred to Stanford, which was closer to home, but also had the advantage that I could play tennis while I was at Stanford, as well as being excellent academically. So I started at Stanford the next fall, and declared a physics major and played on the tennis team, so I was a happy student.

Weren't you both a physics and an English major? Those things don't often go together.

Sally Ride: No, they don't.

I was a physics major actually from almost the first day that I walked in the door at Swarthmore, and I was certainly a physics major -- declared a physics major -- when I first got to Stanford. But about midway through my junior year at Stanford, I had been taking so many physics and chemistry and math courses, which were all required for a physics major, that I just needed some courses, almost to regain my sanity, get a little more balance into my life, and I started taking English courses pretty much on a whim. I had a friend who was an English major and so I decided to go ahead and try a couple of English classes, and I really enjoyed them. It turned out that I kept taking the English classes, had a focus on Shakespearean literature, and ended up with enough units to also have a major in English.

Do you think Shakespearean drama helped you as an astronaut?

Sally Ride: I am certain that it did.

Was there a moment, an epiphany, a flash of lightning, when you decided what you wanted to do with your life?

Sally Ride: Once I went back to Stanford I was pretty committed to being a physics major. I was certain that I wanted to be a research scientist, a professor, and that physics was my field. So I was really set on that path through undergraduate school. I stayed at Stanford for graduate school in physics, loved it.

I was literally just a couple of months away from getting my Ph.D. in physics when I saw, believe it or not, an ad in the Stanford student newspaper, that had been put in the newspaper by NASA, saying that they were accepting applications for astronauts, and the moment I saw that, I knew that that's what I wanted to do. Not that I wanted to leave physics, I loved it, but I wanted to apply to the astronaut corps and see whether NASA would take me, and see whether I could have the opportunity to go on that adventure.

Had they ever taken a woman?

Sally Ride: They had never taken a woman. One of the reasons that they were putting ads in student newspapers was that, first of all, they hadn't taken any astronauts in about 10 years, so they needed to get the word out. More importantly, it was the first time they were planning to bring women into the astronaut corps, and they knew that unless they put announcements in places that qualified women would see them, they would get just the usual suspects of white male military test pilots applying to the program. So this was the first time that they were bringing in women.

Had you ever flown anything before?

Sally Ride: I had never flown anything, not a thing. I had flown in very large airplanes, but I had never flown anything. But NASA was looking for -- you know, the astronaut corps at that time was still primarily test pilots, but they had some scientists in the corps, and they had made it clear that with the Space Shuttle program, they actually needed an astronaut corps that was more than 50 percent scientists and engineers, less than 50 percent test pilots, so they made it very, very clear that they wanted people with science and engineering backgrounds, and that the test pilot or even a pilot background was not required, they'd teach us everything we needed to know about that.

What were the odds of your being selected for that program?

Sally Ride: They were pretty darned small. There were about 8,000 of us who applied, and out of that, NASA picked 35 of us to be the first Space Shuttle astronaut class.

And you were the young woman who did not want to be called on in class?

Sally Ride: Exactly! Yes! And who has since had to learn how to do television interviews.

Were you surprised to be chosen?

Sally Ride: I was surprised to be chosen. I was fairly certain that I would make it a reasonably long way in the selection process, because I was pretty well qualified to apply. I was going to have a Ph.D. by the time the selection process was over, and I had a good athletic background, which NASA -- they don't necessarily look for an athletic background, but they look for a variety of different backgrounds that show that you have got a variety of interests and particularly showed that you can collaborate well with people, work as part of a team, communicate with people. So I knew that I had a reasonable chance to go a reasonable distance in the selection process, but I didn't think for a minute that I was going to be selected.

Was it tougher for a woman in that first class that accepted women?

Sally Ride: It was tougher for a woman, but the reason was really the surrounding culture at the time, the culture at NASA, at the Johnson Space Center, and also the culture in the country. It wasn't more difficult, interestingly, within the astronaut office itself, the women and men. First of all, the group of 35 of us who were selected included six women, so not just one but six, a little bit of security in numbers, and the 29 men who were selected as part of that group were actually accustomed to working with women. One had had a Ph.D. thesis adviser who was a female physics professor, so they were not unaccustomed to the concept. So we had a peer group that was very supportive and didn't think that it was that unusual. However, our whole group was set into this culture where it was very unusual. Out of roughly 4,000 technical employees at the Johnson Space Center -- 4,000 or so scientists and engineers -- I think there were only four women, so that gives you a sense of how male the culture was. When we arrived, we more than doubled the number of women with Ph.D.s at the center.

What did your family and friends think when you applied to the astronaut program?

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Sally Ride: They were very, very supportive. I had a lot of friends who also applied to the astronaut program, so they understood completely why I wanted to do it. My parents at least gave the impression that they were very supportive and very excited, and I am positive my father was. I am less positive about my mother, but I think both of them were very excited and very supportive.

Why exactly did you want to do this?

Sally Ride: It's something that was just deep inside me. There is really no other way to describe it. The moment I saw the opportunity, I knew that that is what I wanted to do. I can't explain why I wanted to do it, it's just something that was part of me.

Can you trace it back to those black and white pictures on television?

Sally Ride: Probably so. I was fascinated by those. I remember where I was watching Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, as all of us who were alive and watching television in those days do, but I was really taken by those pictures.

How hard was it to become an astronaut?

Sally Ride: It was hard to become an astronaut. It was hard to make it through the selection process and the training itself was very difficult, not anywhere near as much physical training as people imagine, but a lot of mental training, a lot of learning. You have to learn everything there is to know about the Space Shuttle and everything you are going to be doing, and everything you need to know if something goes wrong, and then once you have learned it all, you have to practice, practice, practice, practice, practice, practice, practice until everything is second nature, so it's a very, very difficult training, and it takes years.

Did you ever have self-doubts, or fear of failure that you weren't going to be able to do this?

Sally Ride: Actually, I didn't. I am not quite sure what that says, but I didn't.

I didn't have any doubts that that was what I wanted to be doing, and I didn't have any doubts that I would be able to do it. Up until that point, up until I joined the astronaut corps, you could say I was a professional student. I had made it through high school, undergraduate, graduate school, to a Ph.D., so I knew how to learn things. I knew how to study, I knew how to concentrate and to dedicate myself to learning one particular area, and that's what I was doing again, so I was fairly confident and comfortable actually in the environment.

Did you think of yourself as a trailblazer or as a pioneer, not just in space, but for women in space?

Sally Ride: You know, I didn't.

We all knew that the six of us were the first six women to enter the astronaut corps; we were very well aware of that. We realized that this was a significant breakthrough and that to some extent, we were pioneers and trailblazers, but I have to say that I don't think I appreciated how much of a trailblazer I was for women and how much women would look up to me as a role model and the things that I had done until after my first flight, after I landed, partly because while I was in training, I was pretty well insulated by NASA. They wanted me in training. They wanted me to learn what I was supposed to learn. They didn't want me out talking to reporters and the press and the public. So I was not unaware. I read newspapers, I watched television, but I wasn't face to face with women until I came back from my flight, and then it hit home pretty hard how important it was to an awful lot of women in the country.

What did you think NASA saw in you that they didn't see in the others, when they chose you to be the first American woman in space?

Sally Ride: That's hard to say.

I think that I had a lot of the qualities that they were looking for in any astronaut that they select. An understanding of the importance of teamwork and ability to learn things, an ability to recognize a role as a member of a team. Sort of an ability to do things carefully, go through a checklist, make sure that you have done, in science, the experiment correctly in space, gone through the experiment or the checklist correctly. I have no idea why they chose me among the six of us to be the first American woman to get a chance to go into space. That's one of the things that NASA does very well, is keep its secrets on how it selects crews. None of us know why we were selected for any given crew. So I know that the commander of the flight, Bob Crippen, had some input into that decision, but he didn't get to decide, and I have no idea how that decision was made. I'd love to know.

What was your reaction when you learned you would be the first American woman in space?

Sally Ride: I was ecstatic. I was thrilled, and my first reaction was probably identical to the reaction of the other four members of the crew who were told that same day. We could not believe that we got our chance to go into space. We were the first four from our astronaut class to get to go, and so we had been in training for four years at that time, building up to this point, and the moment that we were told, it was, "Oh my gosh, I can't believe that I get a chance to do this." And it was only after that, not long after that, but after that, that I thought, "Oh my gosh, I am going to be the first woman to get to go up, representing this country."

How much pressure is there, not just on you as a woman, but on any astronaut put in that position, being tapped to go into space?

Sally Ride: There's a huge amount of pressure on every astronaut, because when you get right down to it, the experiments that are conducted on a space flight, or the satellites that are carried up, the work that's to be done, is important and expensive work, and you are up there for a week or two on a Space Shuttle flight. The country has invested a lot of money in you and your training, and the Space Shuttle and everything that's in it, and you have to do things correctly. You can't make a mistake during that week or two that you're in space. Anything from making a mistake on an experiment that would ruin some scientist on earth's experiment -- career, potentially -- to doing something wrong with the satellite that a country was depending on for its communications, to making some mistake that could actually cost you and the crew either a mission or your lives. So there is a lot of pressure that's put on every astronaut to just make sure that he or she understands exactly what to do, exactly when to do it, and is trained and prepared to carry it out.

You were able to handle that pressure. It sounds like a lot of pressure.

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Sally Ride: It was a lot of pressure, but it was worth every second of it.

How do you deal with it?

Sally Ride: I didn't think so much about the pressure. I thought that if I focused on being as prepared as I could, and being as prepared as I thought I needed to be, then I would be able to handle it, I would be able to handle the tasks, and that kind of takes care of the pressure automatically.

You must have been asked this a thousand times, but what is it like up there in space? What were you thinking when you weren't entirely preoccupied with experiments?

Sally Ride: It's absolutely unbelievable, and unfortunately, indescribable.

The view of earth is absolutely spectacular, and the feeling of looking back and seeing your planet as a planet is just an amazing feeling. It's a totally different perspective, and it makes you appreciate, actually, how fragile our existence is. You can look at earth's horizon and see this really, really thin royal blue line right along the horizon, and at first you don't really quite internalize what that is, and then you realize that it's earth's atmosphere, and that that's all there is of it, and it's about as thick as the fuzz on a tennis ball, and it's everything that separates us from the vacuum of space. If we didn't have that atmosphere, we wouldn't be here, and if we do anything to destroy that atmosphere, we won't be here. So it really puts the planet in perspective.

You flew Challenger I and Challenger II. I remember the day that Challenger III exploded. I am sure you do too. What was going through your mind then?

Sally Ride: It was a blow both professionally, as you can imagine, to everyone in the astronaut corps, but also personally.

Four of the astronauts who were killed in the Challenger explosion were part of our group of 35 astronauts, part of that astronaut class. So, these were people that, at that time, I had known for eight years. I'd worked with them every day, I'd gone to dinner at their houses, I knew their families. So they were very, very close, close friends. My then husband had been on the flight before the Challenger accident, and I was scheduled to go about two months after the Challenger accident. So it hit me very personally, just to lose friends and to think about what might have been. Of course, it was a huge blow professionally, because I think that astronauts understand very well what the risks are of flying in space, but we all also have a real trust and faith in NASA, and the process that it goes through to minimize those risks to the extent possible, and as the investigation unfolded, it became very clear that that system had broken down, and that that system that we trusted to track down any flaw or any piece of bad test data really had failed.

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Having had this extraordinary experience, what was life like after space?

Sally Ride: Well, there is life after NASA. One of the things that I realized while I was in the astronaut corps, and after I had been on my second flight, was how much I really did love science and physics. I had known, even when I went into the astronaut corps, that I would leave someday. NASA's model is astronauts leave after about seven years, and then go on with their lives. That is how they model their recruiting efforts. I had planned to go back into physics and to become a physicist, and after five or six years in the astronaut corps, I realized that that was important to me. I had actually planned to leave NASA after my third flight, which I never had an opportunity to take because of the Challenger accident, but I had planned to go back into academia, into physics research and physics teaching. So it was almost as if that phase of my life had come to a conclusion. I was ready to move on at that time.

There's an old joke, "It doesn't take a rocket scientist." But what does it take to be a rocket scientist?

Sally Ride: It takes the same thing that it takes to be a lot of different things. It takes a love of the subject and it takes a willingness to put in the time to learn the subject and to really be able to make a contribution.

It must be harder than that.

Sally Ride: Ah, not really.

You have concentrated on several different things since then, but one of them is to make what you have done seem more accessible to young women.

Sally Ride: Yeah, that's absolutely right.

In the years since my flight, I had the opportunity to talk to lots and lots and lots of groups, including elementary school kids, high school kids, college students, women's groups, and what I realized in doing that was that there were a lot of young girls and young women who were very, very interested in science, just like I was when I was growing up, and that that number, the number of those girls was rather large in elementary school. In fact, it seemed to be that about the same number of girls as boys showed an interest in the space program, in science, but that by the time they got to high school and college, if I would go to talk to a physics class, I would see that the number of women in the class was not that much more than when I was in college. A little bit better, but not that much more, so it was really clear that the pipeline was leaking more girls than boys, all the way from elementary school through college, and I came to appreciate that the reasons are primarily societal.

The girls in elementary school are as good at math and science as the boys, the test scores show that. There have been surveys. A 1996 survey of fourth graders asked a bunch of questions, including, "Do you like science?" Sixty-eight percent of fourth grade boys said they liked science, 66 percent of fourth grade girls say they like science. So in fourth grade, it's the same number of boys and girls. Then we start losing both boys and girls, but we lose girls disproportionately all the way through, and it starts right around fourth or fifth grade.

I decided that it was worth my time to try to have some impact on that, and try to, first, help change the culture and make the culture realize that the girls are out there, that if we want scientists and engineers in the future, we should be cultivating the girls as much as the boys, and that we needed to be able to give girls in middle school, high school and college the same opportunities that we give to boys. So I have put in a lot of time creating programs for girls, particularly in middle school, to just keep them engaged and introduce them to role models, show them that whether they want to be a rocket scientist or a geochemist or a microbiologist, that there are women who are now actively involved in those careers and who love what they do. I think it's slowly but surely having an impact.

In terms of a career, in terms of doing what you want to do, do you think it's important to take risks along the way?

Sally Ride: Yeah, I think it is.

I have been a bit of a risk taker all my life, not always in the traditional way of defining risks, but when I was growing up, it was probably risky for a young girl to decide to be a scientist. It was probably, even when I was in college, risky for a female college graduate to go on to graduate school in physics, and certainly going on to be an astronaut was taking a risk. But I think that it is important to be willing to take that step, to kind of make that leap to do what you want to do, and that is my definition of being a risk taker.

How do you measure achievement?

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Sally Ride: I actually measure it by personal satisfaction. I measure it by my own standards and my own goals, and whether I think that I have lived up to what I want to be doing in a particular day or a particular week or a particular year. At any one time, I have a pretty good idea of what I want to be doing in my life today and tomorrow, not necessarily five years from now, but today and tomorrow I have a good idea of what I want to be doing, and it's my own sense of accomplishment, my own internal measure, that I think gives me the measure of achievement. If I think I've accomplished what I set out to accomplish, then that's achievement.

When bright young students come to you seeking advice, what do you say to them?

Sally Ride: Why are you talking to me? Actually, the best advice I can give anybody is to try to understand who you are and what you want to do, and don't be afraid to go down that road and do whatever it takes and work as hard as you have to work to achieve that.

Looking ahead into the 21st century, what are your greatest concerns? What do you think our greatest problems are in America or the world?

Sally Ride: The world has no shortage of problems, but I think that one that is becoming clearer and clearer to us now is the global environment and how we are having an impact on the global environment, and I think that my perspective from space has given me perhaps a unique perspective on this problem. It's the only planet we've got, and you can see the effect of humanity when you look back at earth from space. You can see it in a lot of different areas. You can see smog over the cities, you can see pollution in the water. Our satellites can measure differences in the atmosphere, and it's starting to accumulate to a point that we may not be able to correct the problem if we don't do something about it pretty soon.

That is one of the things that concerns me most over the next several decades.

How would you like to be remembered? What is the legacy of Sally Ride?

Sally Ride: I would like to be remembered as someone who was not afraid to do what she wanted to do, and as someone who took risks along the way in order to achieve her goals.

Terrific. Is there anything more you want to say?

Sally Ride: Not a thing.

You have been great. We appreciate it.

This page last revised on Mar 04, 2011 18:27 EST