Sally K. Ride might have been a professional tennis player—she was nationally ranked when she played for Stanford University, and no less an authority than Billie Jean King urged her to turn pro. Instead, the Ph.D. astrophysicist answered an ad in the Stanford Daily seeking women to apply to NASA, and five years later, she became the youngest American to fly in space, and, more critically, the first U.S. woman. Upon her return to Johnson Space Center after the completion of STS-7, the first of her two missions aboard the Challenger, a NASA official handed her (but not her crewmates) a bouquet of flowers. She accepted them and then, wishing to free her hands—not, she said later, to send any kind of message—she handed them right back. Inevitably, her every gesture would be parsed for its meaning.
Her official NASA jacket, on the other hand, is unambiguous, a wearable résumé adorned with patches to be worn for the inevitable public appearances that are part of the astronaut job description. As an inspiration to young women, Ride made plenty of those appearances. After her second mission, STS‑14, Ride served on the commission appointed to uncover the cause of the 1986 Challenger disaster and in 2003, on the panel that investigated the tragedy of Columbia. Ride’s partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, donated the jacket to the National Air and Space Museum in 2013, the year after Ride’s death. It is just like all the other jackets worn by the astronauts of the shuttle era—and it is one-of-a kind.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated the Columbia disaster occurred in 2001. Air & Space / Smithsonian regrets the error.