Skip to main content

The human, funny side of Sally Ride

By Kathryn Sullivan, Special to CNN
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Thu July 26, 2012
Sally Ride, far right, poses with NASA's first class of female astronauts in August 1979, including Kathy Sullivan, third from left.
Sally Ride, far right, poses with NASA's first class of female astronauts in August 1979, including Kathy Sullivan, third from left.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Former astronaut Kathy Sullivan was Sally Ride's classmate, colleague and crewmate
  • Sullivan says Ride loved pranks, was master of the clever, perfectly timed retort
  • Ride will be remembered for her contributions to science and spaceflight, she says
  • But Ride's best legacy, she writes, is her work inspiring young people to study sciences

Editor's note: Kathryn Sullivan, former astronaut and the first American woman to walk in space, is assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction and deputy administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She is also serving as NOAA's acting chief scientist.

(CNN) -- Retrospectives of Sally Ride's life over the next few days are likely to include the words "ground-breaking," "trailblazer," "inspiration" and "mentor." And rightly so. She epitomized these words and so many more. To me, she was also a classmate, a crewmate, a collaborator and a friend.

Sally and I first crossed paths in the first grade at Hayvenhurst Elementary School in California in 1958, though neither of us remembered the other clearly. We had a good laugh as we pieced this together 20 years later, when we met as two of the first six women in NASA's astronaut corps.

Sally Ride opens a new frontier for others

It wasn't the only similarity in our backgrounds. We shared a love for competitive sports, and our college careers revealed that we both loved arts and letters as much as the sciences. The second point paid many dividends later on, in great crossword challenges during crew quarantine and many shared lecture engagements.

iReport: Sally Ride inspired me to dream

We six women in the Class of 1978 ranged in age from 39 (Shannon Lucid) to 26 (Sally and me). Underneath our different professional backgrounds and personal styles, we had many points in common: All six were intelligent, goal-oriented, creative and strong. We each had chosen our career path because it suited our talents and fired our passion, not in pursuit of celebrity.

Light Years: Tributes pour in for Sally Ride

Kathryn Sullivan
Kathryn Sullivan

But we found ourselves on a very different stage. We bonded as we took on the challenges that came with being the first six women in the U.S. astronaut corps, from the glare of the media spotlight to the everyday challenges of the workplace. We were keenly aware that what we did, and how we did it, would lay the ground for all the women who would come after us. We had to do it right.

First American woman in space dies
Ride in 2006: Have to 'smash stereotypes'
Thagard: Sally Ride wanted to inspire

Which is not to say we couldn't have fun while we were at it. Sally was one of the quickest wits and keenest pranksters in our class. She was the master of the clever, perfectly timed retort.

Sally Ride, first American woman in space, dies

A favorite memory is from our first morning in orbit in 1984. Mission Control woke us up with the standard mix of a bit of music and words to the effect of, "Good morning, Challenger. Houston standing by." Instead of the normal response, "Roger," Sally launched into an answering machine reply: "We're sorry nobody can take your call right now. Please leave your name and number..." Our grins turned to guffaws when the Capcom replied with his name and a real phone number for Mission Control. We carried her joke on throughout the flight, with everyone taking turns at making up the morning's fake answering machine message.

"Why was Sally Ride tapped to fly first?" is a question I've been asked many times in the past few days. The truth is, none of us ever knew, not even Sally. Whatever the reasons may have been, history will record that the selection turned out well indeed. Sally performed superbly on STS-7 and stepped into the role of first American woman to fly in space with intelligence, dignity and grace.

Thank you, Sally Ride

With the distinction she earned in 1983, Sally was free to write her own ticket to life. That she chose to devote her energies to teaching and inspiring others to dream, to dare and to aspire to excellence speaks volumes about her character. She wanted to share her wonderment about the universe and joy of learning with others. She was committed to breaking down the cultural and educational barriers that block so many, especially young girls, from science and the opportunities it offers in life. And this she did, through her work as a physics professor, mentor, motivator and businesswoman.

Sally's place in history is solidly established by her many contributions to science, spaceflight and the American space program. But I daresay her greatest legacy lies in her post-NASA work as an educator and a role model.

Light Years: Memories of my space flight with Sally Ride

She inspired countless people to reach for the stars Her spirit will live on in each and every one of them and in all of us who called her a friend.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

Share your tributes to Sally Ride with us on CNN iReport.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kathryn Sullivan.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 6:48 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 4:49 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT