Tuesday, July 24, 2012

sally k. ride (1951 - 2012)

The world mourns today after learning the fate of one of America’s brightest stars. Sally Ride, the eminent physicist, astronaut, educator, writer, and champion of girls everywhere, died yesterday at her home after a private 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 61.

To say I was floored by the news of Sally’s death would be a profound understatement. To be perfectly honest, I’m still reeling a bit from the shock and have been taken aback at how hard the news has hit me . . .

Like many young girls growing up in the 1980s, I had wide eyes to the future and counted “astronaut” as a legitimate career path. I was too young to remember the day in 1983 that Sally Kristen Ride made history as the first American woman to rocket into outer space. But as I’ve recounted previously, it didn’t take long for me to internalize that there was no stopping girls from exploring the cosmos in person, if that’s what we wanted to do. And as the first of my gender to do that here in the States, it was impossible for Sally Ride not to become a role model.

Little could I guess that some 15 years later I’d get the chance to work directly with that role model. I was a budding science journalist when I was presented with the opportunity to work for Sally at a little startup called Space.com. At the time, she was the president of the fledgling company, whose mission was to be the go-to Web portal for all things space and astronomy. Being offered a job there was as much of a dream come true as I could have imagined at that stage in my life, and I’ll never forget the day we first met, shortly after I had accepted a staff writer position . . . Sally was warm and cheerful and welcoming, and I couldn’t wait to get to work explaining to our readers all that scientists were uncovering about the universe. It eventually became clear, however, that Sally was struggling through some significant ideological differences with the other managers at Space.com. And after about six months, she left for greener pastures. I was sad to see her go, but knew she’d find success in her next adventure.

Back in her home state of California, Sally turned her attention toward teaching the next generation of youngsters about the wonders of science and technology. This had actually been a priority for her well before her Space.com days. Among other things, Sally had penned a couple of educational science books, and she’d initiated an ingenious program known as EarthKAM, which allowed middle schoolers to request specific photos of the Earth to be taken by cameras aboard the space shuttle and International Space Station. So it was no surprise when she decided to form a company, Sally Ride Science, which would focus its efforts on helping nurture students’—especially girls’—interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

In the years since then, Sally had become an outspoken advocate for increased funding for STEM education. She was friendly with President Obama and had made a number of trips to the White House in an effort to make science and engineering cool to kids and important to parents. She also stressed the vital role of teachers and mentors in nurturing interest in the STEM areas, especially in our youngest students. It was heartbreaking for me to read a blog post she wrote just a couple of months ago, knowing now that she probably understood it would be one of her last opportunities to publicly voice her passion:
"Getting more students—girls and minorities in particular—excited about and engaged in STEM studies starts with inspirational teachers. When I was a girl, I had a teacher who realized that I had an affinity for science. She encouraged me and challenged me to pursue that interest, helping to give me the confidence to achieve and do the hard work required to become a scientist and an astronaut. My hope is that each of the teachers trained at the [Sally Ride Science] Academy will create that spark in other children, helping them to dream big and then have the courage and conviction to follow those dreams."
* * *

When news of Sally’s passing entered my synapses, I had been listening to—of all things—the Mozart Requiem in D Minor. I was actually scheduled to sing just a couple of hours later in a performance of the Requiem at a composer conference in Wellesley, MA. I think if it had been just about any other piece, I would have cancelled . . . My heart was heavy, and I wasn't in the mood for a cheerful gathering of singers and musicians. But the fact that it was the Requiem, a moving, sacred piece commemorating the death of an 18th century countess that was left famously incomplete after the premature death of Mozart himself, convinced me to go through with it. It was a strange evening; at times I felt myself drifting from the libretto in front of me deep into the melancholy of the music. At the same time, the experience was cathartic to say the least. Things really hit home, though, when I returned to an email confirming that BrainPOP, the educational company I work for, would be featuring her movie the following day. We usually give a reason for featuring public figures—it’s their birthday, or the anniversary of some big accomplishment. The reason we were giving for featuring the animation I had conceived of just a few years earlier? “In Memory of Sally Ride, 1951 – 2012.”

In the end, I certainly respect Sally’s choice to keep her illness hidden from the public, but I have to say I wish I’d had the opportunity to express my appreciation one last time. As I continue on in my journey, I can only hope to have even a fraction of the impact that Sally had in terms of inspiring kids to “reach for the stars.” Sally, thank you for blessing this planet with your grace, courage, and fortitude. You will be in our hearts and minds for a long, long time to come.