You’ll have to pardon my digression. Far more pressing concerns dominate our national consciousness, as well they should. Tragedy, war and economic chaos are indeed worthy of most of the coverage they receive in the headlines. And I will indubitably rejoin the parade of political punditry posthaste. Nonetheless, something grabbed my attention Tuesday morning; and while it might pale in apparent importance when compared the rest of the events of that and every other day recently, it meant something to me.
Sally Ride passed away Monday at the relatively young age of 61. Ride, who exemplified American exceptionalism as much as anyone ever did, was a rare breed even among her spectacularly intelligent peers in the world of astrophysicists. Yes, she was a rocket scientist; but she was hardly the lab coat-wearing, bespectacled wallflower of cliché. Ride wasn’t merely a rocket scientist; Ride was a rocket driver.
In June of 1983, Ride boarded the Space Shuttle Challenger to become the first American woman in space. She wasn’t the first of her gender to visit the heavens; two Russian women had already made the trip. But she was the first woman to visit space about whom I knew more than her name. At the time of her mission, I was a 12-year-old kid who had abandoned the standard childhood dreams of action-adventure-style spacefaring in favor of more reasonable stuff — like playing center for the New York Rangers. Ride’s beyond-stratospheric jaunt reignited my imagination. I didn’t particularly care about her gender; I just happened to be teetering on the edge of adolescent apathy at the exact moment Americans rediscovered a fascination with space flight, and I went along for the ride.
Even a preteen lad who was starting to notice girls were far less awful than he had previously thought was swept up in space fever. “Star Wars” was finishing up the part of the trilogy that should have been made. “ET” had just phoned home. The Voyager probes had delivered images of Jupiter and Saturn that far surpassed anything we had imagined. And then, Ride and her four fellow astronauts on STS-7 reminded me that science was even cooler than science fiction. Six months after Ride’s ride, a serious miscalculation on my part regarding the speed at which a Flexible Flyer becomes unstable while attempting to negotiate a very large stand of pine trees put an end to any chance I would ever have to slip “the surly bonds of earth” or even enjoy the privilege of serving in the military. I should note that the accident didn’t really change my potential astronaut status. The people who make it aboard American spacecraft are exceedingly rare. Not only do they have to be physically capable of withstanding the extraordinary demands of spaceflight, but they have to be mentally capable of being useful during such. They’re essentially Olympic athletes with genius-level IQs. Think: the star quarterback with the mind of the chairman of the physics department.
We live in an era in which a man who murders a crowd of people in a Colorado movie theater receives love notes online, and that makes bigger news than the passing of one of America’s greatest modern pioneers. More people can identify the real housewives of wherever than can name Americans who have flown into space.
Don’t mistake my remarks for some maudlin lament or “we need better role models” sermon. Nor am I offering one of those weirdly sentimental eulogies that some folks employ to connect themselves to someone noteworthy. Ride wasn’t really a great role model. She was an enormously uncommon human being, even among uncommon human beings. Only a tiny percentage of the rest of us could ever hope to equal a portion of her life’s work. In the days since her passing, details have crept out about her life that some people might find objectionable, like her 2008 endorsement of Barack Obama for President. But I say forget about all of that. Ride was nothing short of amazing. In an era in which American exceptionalism is viewed as either anachronistic or even shameful, she was neither.