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The Ride Of A Lifetime

July 26, 2012 by  

The Ride Of A Lifetime
Sally Ride died Monday.

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.

–Ben Crystal

Ben Crystal

is a 1993 graduate of Davidson College and has burned the better part of the last two decades getting over the damage done by modern-day higher education. He now lives in Savannah, Ga., where he has hosted an award-winning radio talk show and been featured as a political analyst for television. Currently a principal at Saltymoss Productions—a media company specializing in concept television and campaign production, speechwriting and media strategy—Ben has written numerous articles on the subjects of municipal authoritarianism, the economic fallacy of sin taxes and analyses of congressional abuses of power.

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  • Harold Olsen

    Sally ride was an American hero, as were all the space pioneers. But the media really gets me with what they deem to be important. Instead of focusing on her accomplishments, one story I saw the other day on a website seemed to think that the most important thing about her was the fact that she was a lesbian. The story mentioned her other accomplishments, more or less, in passing. The the writer (or writers) seemed to it was more important to let people know she was a lesbian rather than inform them of all the things she accomplished in her lifetime.. The media, and I mean ALL the media, totally disgusts me.

    • Gary L

      The word HERO is used much to often and is misused nearly as much. She was no hero.

    • mark

      Sally Ride worked for the government all of her working life, so she was a mindless, communist parasite sucking the life blood from the taxpayers. C’mon people. Stick to the dominant ideological view of this website. Don’t wander off from this constant mantra.

      • SJJolly

        Some people are going to miss the sarcasm in your posting.

  • Michael J.

    Sally Ride, American Space Pioneer. Question is, was her cancer contracted by exposure to radiation while in space?

  • Sirian

    Well said Ben – thank you!!

  • Chester

    Thanks, Ben. Finally you did an article I can wholeheartedly agree with. Sally Ride was a true hero in all senses of the word. She drew more than one young man or young woman to attempt to learn more about space, and what it takes to actually get there than anyone since John Glenn made his first trip. I don’t think even the moon landings had as much affect on American youth.

  • Stephen

    Terrifically respectful to someone who did accomplish much in her life and not dwell on her personal choices & convictions which have been so heavily exploited by all sides of the media.

  • eddie47d

    Congratulations Ben in your first ever story that I can agree with without the disastrous put downs. Well, maybe a wee bit but that isn’t important because you gave credit where credit was do. Sally Ride broke the glass ceiling and beyond. Foremost her intelligence in the mission was far more important than her being the first women and she did her job well.

  • Porky

    Sorry Mr. Crystal, but I just couldn’t restrain myself, so please try to understand. And for all those inevitable rock-throwers that sometimes inhabit this site, it’s not really me saying this, ok? (the devil made me do it)

    This piece not only sounds like pure govt propaganda, it is pure govt propaganda! It is so far removed from reality my stomach hurt after reading it. Now don’t get me wrong, I hold no ill-will toward Ms. Ride whatsoever. She simply pursued apparently what she felt was in her best interest, like most humanoids. So my problem isn’t with her, save for the “fact” that she supported Obomba in the last election. But to put her up on such a lofty pedestal and anoint her with the status you apparently have is, well, off the mark, way off the mark.

    “Ride, who exemplified American exceptionalism as much as anyone ever did…” Really? You cant be serious. When it comes down to it this person was simply a high-tech (and highly paid I’m sure) govt employee. But oh no, apparently you put her right up there in the same regard as Edison, Jobs, Ford, Hayek, & The Wright Bros, etc. That’s nuts.

    • Priscilla King

      She was an incredibly exceptional government employee!

  • BillH

    In my humble opinion, Sally Ride’s career reflects what was WRONG with the American space program.

    The shuttle program did not end because “the fleet was old”, which is the politically correct explanation. If the shuttle approach made sense, we would have built new ones to replace them. It died for a combination of two reasons: (1) the shuttle design was poor (in particular the reliance on extremely fragile high-tech”tiles” that are not much stronger than Styrofoam) and (2) the program’s culture does not handle risk appropriately (every loss of life disaster had engineers complaining about the issues in advance but NASA management ignored them; my father RIP was one of those complaining engineers).

    I remember when Sally quit the program. It was in reaction to one of the shuttle disasters. She withdrew to save her life (although of course she did not say it exactly that way). She had bought into the NASA culture of invincibility (which of course, by definition, is not a culture that processes risk factors). She suddenly realized that it was a deadly lie. Had she chosen to remain in the program in spite of the risks, she could have been seen as a hero. Had she chosen to leave with a strong condemnation of the culture, she also would have been a hero. But she simply quit.

    She was not responsible for the problems, but neither was she a part of a solution. Her self preservation was appropriate and not a mark of dishonor. But neither was it a mark of heroism.

    • Jim Mapes

      What is funny is that after either shuttle disaster there were literally millions of people still willing to give it a shot evne if it meant a 1 in 75 chance of being blown up. I can’t really laud withdrawing from the program over safety. If anything the shuttle was overly safe with many redundancies.

      Could some things have been improved, sure. The problem becomes cost to mitigate every potential problem, they did address the issues after the disasters, but of hundreds of such issues, all cannot be chased jsut like debugging a massive comuter program. But we are talking about a job that only a few wind up doing due to limited slots available, but a legion would take on the burden if given the chance.

      • BillH

        Actually, I agree with you completely. The shuttle program was in a death pincher between two opposing problems — their failure to properly assess and address risk, and the attitude that it could and should be made perfect and thus no deaths should ever occur. Solution (still needed to this day for replacement programs) is to work on both ends of the problem.

        Risk assessment should be an open and transparent process. My father worked on the space program from the early 50′s on. He complained to appropriate people about the use of pure oxygen in the early space program, the need to build a backup system to maintain the fragile shuttle tiles (or to replace them with something less fragile), and the need to never launch in cold weather. (Heck, even my mother, who was a simple school teacher, knew better than to launch on a freezing morning — she went to work saying “they won’t launch today, its too cold”.) The political need to launch when expected to, and to not rework systems that had already been paid for, prevented those in charge from even listening.

        Above all, the taxpayers need to understand that this is dangerous business. Rather than selling the shuttle as being as safe as taking a bus, they should have pointed out that failures and death were inevitable rather than unthinkable. The central problem with the shuttle design is that it was so technically complicated, and thus expensive, that failure could not be embraced as part of the process and minimized, but rather ignored as a possibility.

        As for Sally Ride, her sudden withdrawal from the program was a wake up call for those paying attention. Unfortunately, no fault of hers, nothing changed.

  • runstowin

    Sally Ride was no hero, she was a sexual pervert.

    • mark

      Even worse, she was a communist, she worked for the government. Everyone who works for the government is a communist parasite sucking blood from the taxpayers. Cmon, everyone on Liberty Digest knows this! Get with the program!

    • eddie47d

      Now that was a losing comment Runstowin. Sally showed that people of all walks of life can accomplish great things and overcome barriers and hopefully survive the smirks and ridicule.

  • bulsprig

    Yes this lady was an American Hero. She was Exceptional, and, she will be missed.

  • Janet

    According to the dictionary the word ”hero” means that someone of distinguished courage or ability, admired for their brave deeds and noble qualities or has performed a quality act and is regarded as a model or ideal: ”He or she became a local hero when he or she saved the drowning child”.
    I understand the word ”hero” means ‘one that has saved a life or lives”.

    • Priscilla King

      Well, actually, I think “hero” is most often used in literature to mean any sympathetic protagonist…often just the male love interest in a female-centered story, and sometimes, in more ambitious literary works, a good man (often a successful military leader or politician) who messes up–the tragic hero. Saving lives is not a requirement.

  • George Vieto

    Sally Ride will be missed. Love or hate her show her family she left behind some respect in their time of mourning.


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