Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Stanford University

Sally Ride (right) with CISAC Fellows Lynn Eden (left), currently Associate Director for Research at CISAC, and Joan Rohlfing, currently President and Chief Operating Officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Ride was a science fellow at CISAC from 1987-1989.
Photo credit: Lynn Eden

July 23, 2012 - CISAC, FSI Stanford In the News

After historic flight to space, Ride kept close ties to Stanford and CISAC

By Beth Duff-Brown

Four years after making history as the first American woman to rocket into space, Sally Ride returned to Stanford – the place where she was first inspired to be an astronaut – with an eye on more earthly matters. 

"She was thinking of what to do next, and I told her what we were doing here," said Sidney Drell, a renowned Stanford physicist and arms control expert who recalled a conversation he had with Ride when she retired from NASA's space program in 1987. Drell was CISAC's co-director at the time, and he persuaded Ride to join what was then called the Center for International Security and Arms Control as a science fellow for two years.

“She was very interested in arms control and had a passion about bringing more girls into science," Drell said. "She was a very private person who shunned publicity, but when she did her job – whether it was flying in space or working with me on arms control – she was A1.”

Ride, who earned undergraduate degrees in English and physics from Stanford and then received her master’s and doctoral degrees in physics from the university in 1975 and 1978, died Monday at her home in the southern California community of La Jolla after fighting pancreatic cancer. She was 61.

According to the website for Sally Ride Science – a company she established to encourage children to look to science, math and technology – Ride saw an ad in the Stanford Daily in 1977 saying NASA was looking for astronauts.

“Up until then, astronauts had been military test pilots – and they had all been male. But now NASA was looking for scientists and engineers and was allowing women to apply. Sally immediately sent in her application – along with 8,000 other people.”

She flew aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1983 and 1984, and served on the presidential commission investigating its subsequent explosion in 1986. During the 2002 annual Drell Lecture – sponsored by CISAC and named for Sidney Drell – she gave an overview of the space race and addressed the capabilities and limitations of satellites and other space assets used for national security.

Lynn Eden, CISAC’s associate director of research who was a fellow at the same time as Ride, recalls how two little girls approached the microphone after the lecture.

“At the end of the Q&A, something that has not happened before or since at a lecture that I’ve attended – these two little girls bravely walked up to the microphone and asked Sally a question,” Eden said. “I think they asked her how to become an astronaut, and in doing so it showed that Sally Ride had the power to encourage these young girls to go into the sciences.”

When Ride first launched into space aboard the Challenger on June 18, 1983, feminist icons such as Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda, as well as thousands of girls wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Ride, Sally Ride,” were at Kennedy Space Center to watch her make history.

“Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism – and literally changed the face of America’s space program,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement Monday. “The nation has lost one of its finest leaders, teachers and explorers.”

After her fellowship at CISAC – which is now the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies – Ride joined the University of California San Diego as a professor of physics and director of the California Space Institute.

During that 2002 Drell Lecture, Ride shared photos she had taken on her Challenger missions. Her photos looked down the eye of a typhoon in the Indian Ocean, chronicled massive erosion in Madagascar and showed dramatic differences in water reclamation at the Egyptian-Israeli border. But one photo, of the Earth's horizon, was striking because it revealed stakes that transcend the security of any one nation.

"If you take a look at where the blackness of space ends and Earth begins," Ride pointed out, "you'll see a very, very, very thin royal blue line. That thin royal blue line is Earth's atmosphere. That's all there is of it. That's all that separates everything we know on our planet from the vacuum of space. And it's a very, very striking sight to every astronaut the first time he or she looks off toward the horizon because it just drives home that we live on a planet, and our planet is very fragile."

Topics: International Security and Defense | Space | United States