An Honest Biography of Sally Ride

Ride’s partner wrote a children’s book that I wish I’d read as a kid.

Dr. Tam O’Shaughnessy, Sally Ride’s partner, during the christening ceremony for the Auxiliary General Oceanographic Research research vessel Sally Ride, on Aug. 9, 2014.

A week before Sally Ride passed away, Tam O’Shaughnessy sat next to her on their bed. They had converted it hospital-style, with medicine and oxygen hook-ups. Although O’Shaughnessy knew the end was near, she never said the word die out loud. Instead of discussing traditional funeral arrangements, she told Ride she wanted to have a celebration of her life.

Ride, America’s first female astronaut, loved the idea. But soon, O’Shaughnessy began to worry: How should she present herself at that event? While their close friends and families knew about their 27-year relationship, the public did not.

“Hon,” she said to Ride, “who am I?”

When Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, the obituary O’Shaughnessy prepared revealed their partnership for the first time. “What was written on the website went viral,” says O’Shaughnessy. “That she had died, that she had pancreatic cancer, and that she had been living with a woman for 27-plus years.” At the October celebration of Ride’s life, O’Shaughnessy stood publicly as Sally Ride’s partner. Ride posthumously became—and still is—the only openly gay U.S. astronaut.

To tell the full story of Ride’s life, and their life together, O’Shaughnessy has written a children’s book, Sally Ride: A Photobiography of America’s Pioneering Woman in Space. I wish it had existed when I was a kid.

I grew up in Central Florida, an hour from Kennedy Space Center. When the space shuttle launched, I watched it from my swingset. On landing, its sonic booms triggered my house’s burglar alarms. I wanted to be up there, not stuck on a swing. When adults asked their perennial question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always said “astronaut” followed mentally by “duh.”

Ride’s first shuttle lifted off two years before I was born. But in second grade, I discovered her through the book Sally Ride: Shooting for the Stars. I carried it around in my backpack for months and wrote her name down when teachers asked us to list our heroes. The idea of her pressed into my mind with almost gravitational force: a woman, an astronaut; it was possible, here was proof.

Before I read the book, astronaut existed only as a concept—as fuzzy as the helmeted faces that I couldn’t resolve from my perch on the swingset. But here in this book was someone. Someone like me—or, more accurately, someone I could imagine myself being like.

I was like Ride in another way, the gay way, although Shooting for the Stars left this part out. I didn’t know the word gay until I was 8, and then only in the form of gaywad. I didn’t encounter an openly gay person until I was a senior in high school. I didn’t meet a real live lesbian until college. And I was a junior before I understood that I was one, too. Like astronauthood, gayness existed only as an abstraction. It was not so much a thing people could be as it was a vocabulary term, from a dictionary, with no example sentences.

But what if I’d had Sally Ride: A Photobiography stashed in my backpack? What if I had seen pictures of O’Shaughnessy and Ride walking their dogs, starting a company, saying “I love you”?

A few months after Ride’s death, O’Shaughnessy ventured into Ride’s study. In the desk drawers, she found every driver’s license the DMV had ever issued Ride, every Southern California Tennis Association card she had ever held, notes from friends, pictures. “She was a saver,” says O’Shaughnessy. “She saved everything.” Whenever a drawer revealed something “funny, sweet, or poignant,” she set it aside for inclusion in the book. And then, she got to work. “I just needed to write,” she says. “I needed to tell the story that was in my brain.”

The book looks like a well-annotated family album: full-page vacation photos, sports tickets with shadowed edges, artfully tilted copies of her astronaut application essay, all surrounded by narrative text. It begins, “I remember the first time I met Sally.” After that first encounter, at age 12 at a tennis match, the two began playing two-on-one tennis games with their friend Ann Lebedeff and dancing to records in Lebedeff’s basement. “At first Sally would hang back and hope no one would notice her,” O’Shaughnessy writes. “But sooner or later one of us, usually me, would take her hand and pull her into the middle of the room, and she would slowly loosen up and dance with the rest of us.”

Much later, when O’Shaughnessy and Ride became romantically involved, they began to dance together again—fast, slow, whatever. “I love those memories,” says O’Shaughnessy, who once again, at the end of her life, took Ride’s hand and pulled her into the middle of the room.

The book presents Ride as an analytical kid, a social introvert who calculated velocities for fun and could outsmart people in tennis and on tests without much effort. It doesn’t feel like a surprise when she becomes a physicist at Stanford, or when she responds to NASA’s first call for female astronauts. But O’Shaughnessy’s writing recalls the moment in a bodily way, as if she, too, lived through that moment: “Sally’s stomach tingled,” she writes. “Her heart raced. All of a sudden, Sally realized she wanted to be an astronaut.” It is the feeling of discovering your identity, a sudden revelation that makes your whole messy life make sense.

After Ride actually went to space in 1983, she became a sought-after speaker, and she visited O’Shaughnessy whenever possible during her travels. O’Shaughnessy realized she was gay at age 22, in the 1970s, but Ride married a man, a fellow astronaut, in 1982. On one of Ride’s visits to O’Shaughnessy, in 1985, the two sat on a couch after a long walk, and O’Shaughnessy bent over to pet her cocker spaniel. “When I looked back at Sally,” she writes, “my heart skipped a beat. She was in love with me—and I was in love with her.”

Revelations, here, seem to come like sonic booms—nothing, and then something that shakes one’s foundation.

They decided to live openly in their inner circle (Ride divorced her husband in 1987) but kept personal information within that radius. After they started their business—Sally Ride Science, an education company—in 2001, they considered, as they did sometimes, coming out. But they decided it would be best if the world saw them only as business partners, not everything-else partners. “We were afraid that we could not get the corporate sponsorships if they knew two lesbians were leading the company,” O’Shaughnessy says. It’s impossible to know whether executives would have balked (which would have been legal in some places). But “bad for business” doesn’t fully explain the secrecy; they founded their romance long before they founded a company.

But things have changed, in the world and in O’Shaughnessy’s mind. “The last few years in the gay movement have been amazing,” she says. “So much has happened. So many people have come out. The world is a different place.”

That’s true: In 2004, Massachusetts legalized gay marriage. In 2009, President Obama declared that federal employees’ same-sex partners could receive (some) benefits, and the Matthew Shepard Act gave sexuality-based violence hate-crime status. Starting in 2011, soldiers could both ask and tell. And this summer, the Supreme Court said gay people could marry everywhere (even places where people don’t agree).

This Earth seems like a different planet from the one I grew up on, so I can hardly imagine how foreign it might feel to those of O’Shaughnessy and Ride’s generation. But even in this changed world, Ride is one of only a handful of well-known gay scientists. The relative lack of visibility has been a topic of opinion pieces over the past few years. Partly to blame is scientists’ general lack of celebrity. In fact, when asked to name one living scientist, 70 percent of Americans simply say, “I can’t.” If we can’t think of any straight white male scientists, it’s no surprise we can’t name gay ones.

On top of that, science labors under the myth of objectivity, in which who you are, who your parents are, what your politics are, and what your spouse made for dinner last night are cordoned off from your data—in other words, your identity and experiences don’t affect your cell cultures or how you interpret photon counts. Still, scientists are coming out: A new study in the Journal of Homosexuality shows that in a sample of 1,400 science and tech professionals, 57 percent are open about their orientations with more than half their colleagues. Organizations of professional LGBT scientists, like NOGLSTP and OSTEM, have begun holding their own conferences.

This is great, as is telling your labmates about your upcoming gay marriage. But aspiring-scientist kids don’t attend conferences, and chances are, they don’t know you or your labmates. And that’s a problem, because having role models (anecdotes and studies, say) helps people succeed in careers that might feel closed-off otherwise. Kids see themselves in role models, can imagine themselves on top of a rocket, and can trace a contrail from here to there. And books like O’Shaughnessy’s proclaim that the ride doesn’t have to be solo.

The book closes with a list of Ride’s quirks, in bullet points, almost as if O’Shaughnessy can’t bear to be the only one who knows or noticed them. Ride ate popcorn soaked in milk with a spoon; she never ripped the top off a sugar packet; she lived in the present.

It reminds me of a list I put in my best friend’s locker in eighth grade. I wrote about how much I admired her for a million reasons, 12 of which were conveniently listed below. I didn’t understand that that meant I wanted to kiss her, or that I’d grow up and into a world where that was OK. Maybe if I’d had O’Shaughnessy’s book, and Ride’s full story, I would have been able to imagine this strange new planet, even if I couldn’t yet travel to it.