In the course of her too-brief career, Sally Ride was many things: astronaut, educator, trail-blazer. But America’s first woman in space, who died of pancreatic cancer July 23 at age 61, also was something else: job recruiter. As the space beat reporter for USA Today in Arlington, Virginia, I was surprised to answer my desk phone one day in the fall of 1999 to hear, “Hi, Paul. It’s Sally Ride. How would you like to come work for us at Space.com?”
Sally was the Web site’s first president, having been recruited by TV’s Lou Dobbs. Dobbs at the time was on hiatus from CNN and had been bitten by the “space bug” to set up a 24/7 Web site devoted to all things space. He and Sally persuaded me to open the first Washington bureau and serve as its chief. (Other bureaus were set up in Florida, Texas, and California.) Since my bureau was in a rented office at NASA headquarters, I got to see Sally whenever she came to the nation’s capital. She was always gracious with the staff and once gave me a signed copy of her book, The Mystery of Mars.
When the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, Dobbs closed the bureaus and laid off staff. (Sally left voluntarily around the same time). I went on to other things, and wasn’t in touch with her again until mid-2010, when I asked her for permission to reprint an article she had written for the magazine about the view of Earth from space. Helpful as ever, she readily granted it.
Sally, I thought, always seemed a bit uncomfortable with her fame. Her famous first shuttle ride, STS-7 in June 1983, came five years before I began covering the program. So I wasn’t there for Sally-mania. But here’s what she recalled in an essay many years later:
“At the end of our mission, after the shuttle landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California, we were flown to Houston to meet our families and the press. At the airport, someone handed me a bouquet of flowers. When we reached the space center and I got out of the limousine, I handed the flowers to the man from NASA who was standing next to me. He handed them back. I handed them back again. This went on a couple of times. We were both a little flustered by everything that was happening.
“That one little action — giving back the flowers — probably touched off more mail to me than anything I ever did or said as an astronaut. I received hundreds of letters, almost evenly divided in what they said. Half of those who wrote were incensed. ‘How could you be so rude and ungracious as to give back the flowers? That’s just like you feminists.’ The other half were thrilled. ‘Good for you! You let them know women don’t just want flowers.’ The truth was, I hadn’t been making a big statement one way or another. I just wanted my hands free.”
The Sally Ride Science Center suggests that those who wish to make a gift in memory of Sally should donate to the Sally Ride Pancreatic Cancer Initiative.