Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Sally Can't Dance No More

On June 18, 1983 Sally Kristen Ride rode the space shuttle Challenger to become the youngest American and first American woman to go to space. On October 5th 1984 Sally rode the space shuttle Challenger to space a second time. On July 23rd 2012 she died of pancreatic cancer in La Jolla California.

America’s second woman in space, Judith Arlene Resnik, died on January 28th 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded just 73 seconds after liftoff. Sally Ride would sit on the Rogers commission whose 9 June 1986 report would establish the need for enhanced safety procedures in NASA. Sally would also sit on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board whose 26 August 2003 report would identify a catastrophic anomaly occurring 82 seconds after liftoff.

Sally identified “remarkable similarities between the two tragedies”

The challenger disaster effectively ended Sally’s tenure as an astronaut. She had been scheduled to fly another mission, but when that mission was dropped in the post-Challenger re-shuffling she was dropped from crew rotations. After representing NASA on the Rogers Commission Sally continued to work for NASA for a few months.  Then in 1987 she left NASA, divorced her husband, and moved to California.

It may have been because of her employment with NASA that Sally did not co-sign Richard Feynman’s famous “minority report” appendix to the Rogers Commission’s 1986 report. It may have been because Feynman’s appendix too strongly criticized the agency she had been a vital member of since 1978. However, Sally’s input steered the main body of the report to the fault finding that lead to real changes in the way NASA described and handled safety concerns in its space program.

Roger Mark Boisjoy died on January 6th 2012 after succumbing to a cancer which had spread to his colon, kidneys, and liver. On the night of January 27th 1986 Roger had, as project manager for the shuttle solid rocket boosters at Morton Thiokol, used his authority to force a telephone call between executives at Thiokol and NASA; Roger had learned that the temperatures in Florida were going to drop below freezing, and wanted the launch delayed. Roger was afraid that the potential O-ring failures he had documented in a January 1985 memo would prove catastrophic; they did.

After Roger presented his alarming prediction during the pre-Challenger phonecall the Utah-based executives of Thiokol put the NASA administrators on hold for a couple minutes. After they conferred privately with Roger Thiokol got back on the line and announced that their concerns were not conclusive.

Roger's recounting of the O-ring concerns hit the Rogers Commission investigation like a ton of bricks. Even Feynman, who would use Roger’s revelations as an important element of his minority report, was stunned. Only Sally was able to provide genuine support to the engineer who had just sunk his own career to make the truth known.

In her most famous public display of affection Sally gave Roger a hug.

Roger’s career would take a nosedive. He became unemployed, and almost unemployable. Years later he would uncontrollably sob when recounting the Challenger disaster, and his role in it.
“I knew they were all going to die, and I could not do anything to stop it.” -- Roger Boisjoy
Sally had, perhaps, a unique perspective on the difficulty that “coming out” with uncomfortable truths could cause. Since 1985 Sally had been in a committed relationship with Tam O’Shaughnessy. That relationship would only end with Sally’s Death this past Monday.

The policy of Don’t Ask Don’t tell would not be introduced until 1993. NASA was a strange offshoot of the air-force, and though Sally and her fellow astronauts were civilians the legality of dismissing them for homosexuality would have been a concern for any of them. Tam is female, so it would have been a personal concern for Sally.

Tam and Sally apparently met when Sally was in middle school, and just 12 years old. A story of love and devotion spanning almost five decades is surely chock full of the sort of details which would delight the sensibilities of any un-jaded listener. Sally kept her same-sex partnership a private –though not secret- detail of her life until after she died. Because of the laws of the USA Tam will not see a penny of the survivor’s benefits she would enjoy if she and Sally were able to have legally married.

Sally’s death has attracted the attention of many public figures; including the two men who would become our next president.

Mitt Romney said: “Sally Ride ranks among the greatest of pioneers. I count myself among the millions of Americans she inspired with her travels to space.”

Mitt strongly opposes the concept of same-sex marriages that would have allowed Tam to receive federal survivor benefits.

President Obama said: “"As the first American woman to travel into space, Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model. She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars and later fought tirelessly to help them get there by advocating for a greater focus on science and math in our schools. Sally's life showed us that there are no limits to what we can achieve and I have no doubt that her legacy will endure for years to come. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Sally's family and friends."

President Obama has recently categorically stated his support for changes in legislation that would allow same sex marriages to be legal.

The tribute article that served as Sally’s obituary in the Salt Lake Tribune missed both Sally’s support of Roger, and the fact that Tam was a woman. I think that is because Thiokol was a Utah-based company, and Tam’s gender identifies Sally as a high-profile heroic lesbian. Though these two issues do not adequately define Sally they are indispensable elements of her most accomplished and amazing life. I have missed a lot that would contribute to an adequate telling of her life's accomplishments here due to space and time concerns, but look into what has been written about her by credible sources. You will find inspiration.

1 comment:

Cyndi Degree said...

Thank you, interesting read!