Web edition: July 24, 2012
Though she didn’t know it, I spent many evenings with Sally Ride in the 1980s.
Ride, who in 1983 became the first American woman in space, died July 23 at age 61 after fighting pancreatic cancer for 17 months.
But decades ago, she often sent me gently to sleep, inviting my young mind to follow her high into the microgravity skies above Earth.
Many childhood evenings involved my dad climbing into the space separating my bed from my little sister Leila’s. There, he would dutifully read to us from whichever book we plucked off the shelf. One book came up more often than others: To Space and Back, a tale of Sally’s adventures aboard the space shuttle written with journalist Susan Okie.
The book begins with an alarm clock ringing at 3:15 a.m. “It’s pitch black outside. In four hours a space shuttle launch will light up the sky,” Ride writes. It ends with the shuttle safely returning to Earth. “I take a few moments to get used to being back on Earth and to say goodbye to the plane that took us to space and back.”
Stuffed with photos and anecdotes, To Space and Back was one of our favorites, merging the majesty of spaceflight with a friendly voice and tantalizing tales of life in near zero-gravity: “I started out trying to ‘swim’ through the air, but that didn’t work at all; air isn’t dense, the way water is, and I felt silly dog-paddling in the air, going nowhere.”
What more could kids ask for? (I think my dad enjoyed it, too. He never complained about reading it again.)
When I heard that Ride had died yesterday, I rang my parents in California to ask if they could find To Space and Back. At first, it appeared the book had wandered off. But after a while, they called back saying they found it — To Space and Back had migrated from our kids’ bookshelf to a more grown-up shelf housing science and art books. Yes, there was Sally, with her tales of chasing peanuts and cookies around the space shuttle, nestled among books describing heliophysics and ancient Egypt.
And then, a surprise: She had signed the first page, a detail I hadn’t remembered.
“Reach for the stars!” it says.
I know I’m not the only person who followed Sally Ride's adventures aboard the space shuttle and dreamed of flying in her footsteps. And though I didn’t become an astronaut, her words helped the younger me to look for the adventures in life, to keep asking questions, and to reach for the stars — or at least keep a close eye on them.