Sally Ride: More Than a Women’s Pioneer

The first woman in space was also a lesbian icon

Courtesy of NASA

For many of us growing up, Sally Ride was a household name, the astronaut you wrote history papers about, someone who changed the way many people viewed women in the space program (let alone the professional world). But for all the praise Ride earned for being the first woman in space – someone for whom young girls could look up to – an important detail was often missing from the early conversations.

Sally Ride was gay.

After news broke yesterday that Ride had died after a long fight against pancreatic cancer (a nearly impossible type of cancer to beat for anyone, let alone this American hero), the world got a glimpse of the private side of the icon. Dead at just 61, she’s survived by her longtime partner of 27 years Tam O’Shaughnessy, according to Ride’s own website.

The era in which Ride broke so many barriers for women wasn’t necessarily the time to also come out. But we can’t help but feel another pride for her legacy, one that will not only remember Ride for her place in 20th century American history as the first woman in space, but also that she lived an openly gay life for almost three decades with the same woman.

“Sally Ride and Tam O’Shaughnessy became friends at the age of 12 when they both played tennis,” according to an article on Ride’s website. “While their lives took different paths, they stayed in contact over the years.”

That’s an understatement. They shared a life together, including the history-making moments when Ride took her first orbit around Earth in 1983.

Ride’s more recent years may have been spent under the radar, fighting a tough fight against cancer, but her impact on not only women’s lib – but also gay lib – will never be silenced. Though Ride retired from NASA in 1987, she launched Sally Ride Science in 2001, an organization that creates innovative classroom materials and teacher development training to motivate children about science. She also wrote seven science books with her partner, a professor in California.

We just hope that when the next generation reads about Sally Ride as the first woman in space, they also have a chance to know Sally Ride, the openly gay astronaut – someone who changed the course of history for so many people – for the better.