LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
It was 31 years ago this month that astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space. When the space shuttle Challenger exploded on takeoff, killing all on board. Ride played a major role in finding out why, and after leaving NASA she founded a company to encourage girls to go into science. But when Sally ride died from cancer two years ago at the age of 61, little-known details about her personal life emerged, including a long-term relationship with another woman. Journalist Lynn Sherr was covering NASA when she met Ride and the two became friends. Sherr has written a comprehensive biography "Sally Ride: America's First Woman In Space," and she says she did not check her journalism credentials at the door when she decided to write about her friend.
LYNN SHERR: I did it because - exactly because I knew her as well as I did because I thought I could tell the right story. I also did it because there were things about her I didn't know, and when I learned about them right after she died, I realized this was an investigation I wanted to undertake. That my friend had withheld certain things from me and from the world and I thought it might be interesting to see how that added to her character - because by the way that's the way we lived our lives. She was my friend the whole time I was reporting on her and I never compromised my ability to be a good journalist while I was reporting on her.
WERTHEIMER: One of the things that was not out there, was her very private life, the fact that she had a - what was it? - a 27-year relationship with another woman, and that amazingly according to the way you tell the story, it was not generally known.
SHERR: Sally and Tam O'Shaughnessy, her partner, did have friends that they would socialize with, but for the most part it wasn't. Tam prefers the word private; I think you could use the word secret. But she was concerned about the impact on NASA, which we only know because she said something about that right before she died. She also was concerned when she and Tam started their company, Sally Ride Science, that two women in a lesbian relationship might have difficulty raising money to support this extraordinarily wonderful company that was going to get girls interested in science and math. I am very sorry that our culture and our society was one in which there was some shame and fear - although with Sally you would have never really known that because there's always a smile on her face and she doesn't to have been downtrodden by this.
WERTHEIMER: Let me ask you, on page 44 you do one of the sort of journalistic tricks. And that is to ask a person to define themselves. So could you just read us - there's a paragraph at the bottom I think of page 44?
SHERR: (Reading) And if you woke up Sally Ride in the middle of the night and asked her what one word best described her, a question I often posed to size someone up, she would say according to everyone who knew her best. Physicist. She liked the fact that only 90 some naturally occurring elements comprise everything from a grain of sand to the furthest star. That physics means being precise not arbitrary, that it dwells in the real world with natural law. These were Sally's most comfortable coordinates.
WERTHEIMER: Was Sally Ride really a serious scientist?
SHERR: Sally was absolutely a serious scientist. And, you know, I had a conversation with one of the few of her students whom she mentored, and he had a wonderful way to describe her. He said she was a physicist who took a detour through space.
WERTHEIMER: (Laughing) Well, one of the most interesting things about Sally Ride, I thought, was the extraordinary thing that happened to her when Challenger fell. It changed her life. It changed her feelings about NASA, which had been, like, the firmament in which she moved.
SHERR: And she went from saying, I'm going to get in line for my next flight like everybody else, all I want to do is fly, fly, fly, to reassessing and going back to a plan that had somewhere been in the back of her mind, which was she was only going to stay at NASA for X number of years and then get back to physics research. Challenger was a moment when the scales fell from all of our eyes, but what was revealed after the Challenger explosion and the faulty decision-making of some of the managers - not everyone, but some of them - was a crime. It was absolutely a crime, and Sally saw it that way, too. And Sally then came up with the evidence, the first critical evidence which we now only now know about - did not know until she died. That NASA had tested the material in those O-rings, those giant, rubber gaskets.
WERTHEIMER: Everybody who remembers Challenger will remember that.
SHERR: The gaskets that were holding together the segments of the solid rocket boosters. She was slipped a piece of paper which proved that some in management knew that the rubber in the O-rings would not withstand those super cold temperatures. Challenger happened in January of 1986. Sally resigned from NASA in 1987.
WERTHEIMER: And she never flew again.
SHERR: She never flew in space again.
WERTHEIMER: When do you think Sally became a feminist?
SHERR: I think Sally was born a feminist. When she found that NASA was looking to recruit women, she knew she was the beneficiary of the women's movement, she always said that. Her mother had the great line, after Sally flew, everybody rushed around saying, what do you have to say? What do you have to say? And she said, how about God bless Gloria Steinem?
WERTHEIMER: Well, now, for those of us who remember the day that Sally Ride flew into space, it's like remembering the day that Walter Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro to be his vice presidential candidate. Those are milestones certainly in my life but what is her impact? Did she reach all the way out into generations who are still young?
SHERR: Youngsters may not know exactly who she was or exactly what she did, but they feel her impact. There is no question about it. At the time, as you remember, she was the most famous person on the planet. She was on the cover of every magazine; Half a million people lined the rivers and the coastline at the Kennedy Space Center to watch her lift off. Millions of people, mostly women, mostly young women, looked at her bold journey and translated it into their own tickets to success. If she can do that, they said, I can do anything. This was the ultimate glass ceiling, and Sally Ride had crashed right through it.
WERTHEIMER: Lynn Sherr's book is called "Sally Ride: America's First Woman In Space." Thank you very much.
SHERR: Thank you Linda.
WERTHEIMER: It's Morning EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.