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Sally’s Sidekick

Working with Sally Ride only increased my respect for her. She might have made a good NASA Administrator—if she hadn’t turned it down

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Sally Ride on her first spaceflight in 1983...

I’m not usually a fan of celebrating NASA anniversaries—too much looking backwards and pining for the good old days. But I was at the head of the line to salute this month’s 30th anniversary of STS-7, which carried Sally Ride as the first American woman in space. And it got me reflecting on Sally’s legacy as we approach the one-year anniversary of her death last July.

I was pleased to work with her on several occasions, both inside and outside of NASA and never dreamed we would have such a fruitful partnership—given that initially I couldn’t stand her.

In 1982, when she was preparing for her first shuttle flight, I was managing NASA’s Shuttle Student Involvement Program, a national competition that gave high school students a chance to fly experiments on the space shuttle. When I asked the STS-7 mission planners at the Johnson Space Center if room was available on the flight, they said no. According to them, Sally Ride didn’t want to have to mess with student experiments on an already busy flight.

I had only been at NASA a couple of years, so I assumed information sent to headquarters from the field centers was true. So I’m thinking, What does Sally Ride have against student experiments?

Fast forward to 1986. After serving on the presidential commission to investigate the Challenger accident, Sally came to NASA headquarters to lead a task force on long-range national goals for space. A mutual friend thought I could help Sally navigate the headquarters bureaucracy. She and I immediately hit it off, so I became, in effect, her sidekick. And I learned the truth: It turned out she had no idea there had ever been a request to place student experiments on STS-7.

Sally did a fabulous job in leading the task force, which produced Leadership and America’s Future in Space, known as the Ride Report (if you’ve never read it, you should check it out). She made sure the working groups that produced the report had ample representation from women and younger NASA staff, which was a departure from most study groups at the time.

You can see Sally’s commitment to education on the report’s last page:

“An informed public is essential to both the near- and long-term interests of the nation’s civil program…This means capturing the imaginations and interests of young people at an early stage…and encouraging them to pursue studies that will prepare them to actively participate in the space program.”

This from the person I was told was against student experiments! I can’t help but think that the seeds for her namesake organization, Sally Ride Science, might have been planted with these words.

...and greeting a fan at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in 2008.

In 1992, I again became Sally’s wingman when Bill Clinton asked her to join his transition team and lead the Science, Technology, and Space planning group. Not long after, the president-elect also asked Sally to return to NASA as administrator, but she turned him down.

“You can’t turn down the president,” I exclaimed when she told me of Clinton’s request. In her typical no-nonsense way, she replied, “Well, I did it this morning.” Not even Bill Clinton could compete with her beloved west coast and office view of the Pacific Ocean. Many have speculated on whether Sally would have made a good administrator. Although I’m sure she would have done a superior job, I think the politics and budget challenges would have deflated even her normally positive spirit.

I last interacted with Sally in my position at NASA as head of Public Involvement. A grant from the Office of Communication last year enabled Sally Ride Science to expand schools’ use of an Earth-viewing camera on the space station. As we worked out the details, Sally and I emailed and spoke on the phone several times, but private to the end, she never mentioned her fight with cancer.

During the past month, celebrations of her life and legacy were held at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. She received numerous awards and posthumous honors, including the designation of the Sally Ride EarthKAM, a NASA internship named in her honor, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

NASA even named the spot where the GRAIL spacecraft crashed into the moon last December as the Sally Ride Impact Site. At the Los Angeles tribute, her sister, Bear, noted that the family calls it as the Sally Ride Gulch. I think Sally would have agreed and smiled.

Alan Ladwig has worked for space advocacy organizations, aerospace companies large and small, and NASA. Before retiring from the agency last month, he was Deputy Associate Administrator for Public Outreach. He is now the head of To Orbit Productions.

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