Remembering Sally Ride—the First U.S. Woman—and Lesbian in Space #TBT

Washington DC. USA, July, 1986 Dr. Sally Ride at the Rogers Commission on the Space Shuttle accident. Photo: Shutterstock

Astronaut and Physicist, Dr. Sally Ride died seven years ago almost to the day, on July 23, 2012. In 1983, Ride became the first U.S. woman to go to space (she followed two female Russian cosmonauts who had previously gone as part of the Soviet Union’s space program).

On June 18, 1983, she was a crew member on the space shuttle Challenger for STS-7 [its seventh mission]. Many of the people attending the launch wore T-shirts bearing the words “Ride, Sally Ride”, lyrics from Wilson Pickett’s song “Mustang Sally”.

Although she was gay and partnered for many years it wasn’t until after her death that the world learned she was a lesbian.

NBC News reported at the time of her death: “In life, Sally Ride became famous as America’s first woman in space — and in death, she’s now added to her fame as the first acknowledged gay astronaut.” 

The revelation came in a low-key way: Monday’s obituary from Sally Ride Science, the educational venture she founded a decade ago, referred to Tam O’Shaughnessy as “her partner of 27 years.” A spokeswoman for Sally Ride Science, Terry McEntee, said Ride and O’Shaughnessy, who is the company’s chief operating officer and executive vice president, worked out the phrasing of the announcement before Ride’s death.

 Sally Ride is awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom at The White House on November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. Her partner Tam O’Shaughnessy accepted. Photo: Shutterstock

Sally Ride’s sister, Bear Ride, who is also gay, explained why the former astronaut kept quiet about her sexual orientation. 

“In her inherent Norwegian reticence — in this and so many aspects of her personal life (wrestling with pancreatic cancer, for example) — she just didn’t talk much (see Norwegian comment, and add to that the typical tight-lipped scientist thing),” Bear wrote. “If you read interviews from years and years back, you’ll see that there was always a major frustration that she didn’t comment much on ‘how it feels to be the first American woman in space’ — she just didn’t think that way. She wanted to get the job done. Her personal feelings were just that: personal. Not right or wrong — simply Sally. Everyone who knows her well really got that about her.” 

Bear, an out Presbyterian minister, takes a different approach. 

“I’m a rather out-there advocate for LGBT [lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender] rights — my partner and I have even been arrested a couple of times in public protest!” she told me. “But that’s me, and not Sally.”

Bear Ride wrote an essay in tribute to her sister after her death that read:

“Sally Ride was the first American woman to go into space and she was my big sister. Sally died peacefully on July 23rd after a courageous 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. I was at her side. We grew up in Encino, CA. Our parents, Joyce and Dale Ride, encouraged us to study hard, to do our best and to be anything we wanted to be. In 1983 Newsweek quoted our father as saying, ‘We might have encouraged, but mostly we just let them explore.’ Our parents encouraged us to be curious, to keep our minds and hearts open and to respect all persons as children of God. Our parents taught us to explore, and we did. Sally studied science and I went to seminary. She became an astronaut and I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. 

Sally lived her life to the fullest with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, joy, and love. Her integrity was absolute; her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless. Sally died the same way she lived: without fear. Sally’s signature statement was ‘Reach for the Stars.’ Surely she did this, and she blazed a trail for all the rest of us. 

My sister was a very private person. Sally had a very fundamental sense of privacy, it was just her nature, because we’re Norwegians, through and through. People did not know she had pancreatic cancer, this is bound to be a huge shock. For 17 months, nobody knew, and everyone does now. Her memorial fund is going to be in support of pancreatic cancer. 

I hope the pancreatic cancer community is going to be absolutely thrilled that there’s now this advocate that they didn’t know about. And, I hope the GLBT community feels the same. I hope it makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that another one of their heroes was like them.” 

Most people did not know that Sally had a wonderfully loving relationship with Tam O’Shaughnessy for 27 years. Sally never hid her relationship with Tam. They were partners, business partners in Sally Ride Science, they wrote books together, and Sally’s very close friends, of course, knew of their love for each other. We consider Tam a member of our family. 


Rest in power, Dr. Ride.

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