Back in June 1983, NASA did something rather unusual. A couple of things actually. For one, they sent a woman up into space, 20 years after the Soviet Union did it for the first time and a year after they did it for the second time.
For another, they set up a toll-free phone number for us space junkies to call and listen to the astronauts talk. I did that, several times. Just to hear Sally Ride. I mean, wow. The first American woman in space. Space, the final frontier. A woman astronaut.
A woman astronaut who got asked ridiculous things like, “do you cry when things go wrong on the job” by my beloved colleagues after she was named to STS-7, never mind she had a Ph.D. in phucking physics. From fucking Stanford. And she helped develop the robot arm. My colleagues can be such idiots.
OK, but that was 1983 you say. How really different is it now? Quite, actually. For one thing, the United States doesn’t even have a shuttle program anymore, and depends on the Soviet Union … erm, I mean Russia, to get astronauts to the space station. And my colleagues pretty much ignore the whole thing anyway. I can probably count on my two hands how many know that Suni Williams is up there right now, and probably on only one hand the number who know she’ll be the station commander in September.
But Sally. Sally Ride. The name, the woman. Space. Sally was the ground communicator for the 2nd and 3rd shuttle flights, flew for a second time in 1984 and was set to fly for a third time when Challenger — the very shuttle she flew in both her space missions — exploded. NASA named Sally to the commission to investigate the accident, and then later to do strategic planning in Washington.
But politics and science don’t mix very well. Kinda like religion and science, actually, so Sally left and went off to do science, with a particular aim at bringing more kids, particularly girls, on board. She still worked with NASA on the side, and was named to the commission investigating the Columbia accident in 2003 — the only person to serve on both.
Oh, and she was a lesbian. We found out about this because the obituary that she and her 27-year partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy (also a scientist) wrote mentioned Tam as her first survivor. Hell, we didn’t even know Sally had cancer, and now we find out she was a lesbian too?
Good thing they wrote that obit, though, because NASA used its own. It doesn’t mention Tam.
But damn, some of us said, why the hell did she wait until after she was dead to let us in on this secret? Isn’t Sally Ride the very kind of person we want to show the nutjobs that we are not only just like everybody else, but in some cases we are way better than everybody else?
Well, yeah. But Sally didn’t see it that way. I don’t know what discussions went on behind closed doors between her and Tam (although I’m sure there were plenty), but I can guess at what kinds of things may have helped her decide not to come out publicly. Do you cry when things go wrong at work?
Sally wanted to do science, not give lessons on how it is that a lesbian can be America’s first female astronaut and be so fucking brilliant the rest of us should just fall down at her feet. Sally wanted to promote science in a country where half of it — oddly enough the same half that would condemn her to hell for her “lifestyle choice” — doesn’t get that science isn’t a matter of what you decide to believe. Sally wanted to get more little girls interested in science, not fend off ridiculous accusations that she’s a dyke child molester — accusations that my colleagues were bound to take just as seriously as anything she could say to the contrary.
In short, an out lesbian Sally Ride could never have accomplished what she accomplished because she would have been too busy dealing with both the idiots who think lesbians are women who hate men and those of us on our side who think famous lesbians should spend all their time in the spotlight talking about how great it is to be gay.
And that, my friends, is just so fucking sad it hurts to think about it.