Like many other schoolboys in the 1980s, transfixed by the awesome sight of the space shuttle lifting off from the Kennedy Space Center, by the legend of the moon landings, and by the culturally enforced vision of the astronaut as our era’s most intrepid pioneer, I had a thing for those that went into space. Needless to say, I wanted to be like the men, those dashing, crew-cut, sunglasses-wearing types, piloting jets and shuttles. But that didn’t mean that women astronauts couldn’t make me admire them, especially if their credentials for spaceflight included degrees in physics like Sally Ride‘s did. I was a physics nerd too–one inordinately proud of explaining to anyone that cared to listen what pions had to do with the relationship between a proton and a neutron–and found the idea of civilian scientists and not just military pilots heading into space incredibly inspiring. If I ever dreamed being an astronaut, it was as a Mission Specialist and not as a Pilot Commander that I imagined myself; I didn’t think I would join the military. And I also dreamed about a career as an astrophysicist, so a physicist-astronaut seemed wonderfully cool.
When Ride’s selection for STS-7 was announced, I took notice. It didn’t matter she was a woman. Physics just made everyone that studied it cool, and besides, she was an astronaut. What was not to like? I studied shuttle flights closely in those days, diligently making trips to the American Library in New Delhi to watch videotapes of reports on each mission; STS-7’s details–its satellite deployments, for instance–received a great deal of wide-eyed attention from me. (It helped that the mission was led by the dashing Bob Crippen.) Later, I saw Ride on television handing interviewers with aplomb and grace. I do not remember if any of them asked those sexist questions that were so often directed at her but it is entirely possible that I might have heard and seen a few and not realized just how offensive that line of questioning was. I do remember Carl Sagan being paired up with her for a television interview, and on being asked if he was envious of astronauts like Ride, saying he didn’t consider ‘puttering around in low earth orbit to be space travel.’ In the neighboring television window, Ride just smiled, refusing to fall for the bait. She seemed graceful, smart, and tough, a winning combination at all times.
One thing I didn’t know about Sally Ride then was that she was a lesbian. I wonder what I would have thought then as a seventeen-year-old schoolboy, one relatively unsophisticated in his understanding of human sexuality and its diverse forms of expression. My guess is that while I might have had some puerile curiosity about her sexual orientation and would have jumped at the opportunity to crack a crude joke or two in juvenile company, I think that in the end, the combination of astrophysics and manned space flight would have trumped it all. It still does.