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Popular Topics in Social Sciences
Stonewall Riots Stonewall Riots
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Topics In the News
 
Sally Ride to Receive Nation's Highest Civilian Honor
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 05/21/13
Last updated on: 05/21/13
 
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Sally Ride.

On May 20, 2013, President Obama announced that later this year he will bestow the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, on the late astronaut Sally Ride. In addition to being the first woman and youngest person in space, Ride later served as director of NASA's Office of Exploration and became a renowned professor, scientist, and innovator at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego. Her lesbianism did not become generally known until July 2012 when the announcement of her death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 61 acknowledged her longtime partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy.

The Medal of Freedom is the Nation's highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. In his announcement of the selection of Ride for the honor, President Obama said, "We remember Sally Ride not just as a national hero, but as a role model to generations of young women. Sally inspired us to reach for the stars, and she advocated for a greater focus on the science, technology, engineering and math that would help us get there. Sally showed us that there are no limits to what we can achieve, and I look forward to welcoming her family to the White House as we celebrate her life and legacy."

Also on May 20, NASA announced it would pay tribute to Ride by creating a new agency internship program in her name and renaming a science instrument aboard the International Space Station in her honor.

On April 12, 2013, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced that a new Navy ship will be named after Ride. Mabus said that the ship will be an auxiliary general oceanographic research or "AGOR" ship and will be named R/V Sally Ride (AGOR 28). AGOR ships are traditionally named for leaders in science and exploration.

After making history as the first American woman in space when she flew as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1983, making a second flight in 1984, and retiring from NASA in 1987, Ride devoted herself to education, both as a university professor and the founder of Sally Ride Science, an enterprise that encourages girls to study mathematics, science, and engineering and to pursue careers in those fields.

Ride did not come out publicly during her lifetime. Her lesbianism did not become generally known until July 2012 when the announcement of her death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 61 acknowledged her longtime partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy. The revelation prompted a wide-ranging discussion about the closet and the obligation of famous glbtq people to come out.

Among the questions raised by the posthumous outing of Ride included, for example, did Ride, a genuine heroine, have an obligation to come out? Would her being out have advanced the cause of glbtq rights? Was she closeted because she feared that she would not have been selected as an astronaut or, later, that her work with children would suffer were she out? Could it be that Ride, having surmounted the obstacles she faced as a woman in science, felt that confronting another obstacle would be too demanding and exhausting?

While these questions raised by Ride's failure to come out publicly during her lifetime are important ones that may not be answered until a definitive biography of the astronaut appears, it is well to remember that they also say as much about the homophobic culture in which Ride came of age and achieved her great feat as they do about Ride herself.

Similarly, it is important to emphasize that although Ride was not publicly open about her lesbianism or her relationship with O'Shaugnessy, the two women were not closeted. They were known and accepted as a couple by their large circle of friends and family.

As Linda Rapp writes in her glbtq entry on Ride, the "long love affair [between Ride and O'Shaughnessy]is inspiring. They met when they were twelve years old and played tennis together. They became life partners in 1985, two years after Ride's historic flight. Sharing a passion for science and for education, they stayed together in good times and bad times, including through Ride's terminal illness. In short, they were married in every way except the name."

In the video below, Ride remembers her historic flight.

 
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