Dr. Sally Ride, an extraordinary woman, a legendary astronaut and a leadership pioneer died last week to little or no fanfare. I kept waiting for the front-page newspaper encomium that would outline her many accomplishments and the breadth of her influence. But that didn’t happen. And then it struck me: perhaps mainstream newspapers are hesitant to highlight the accomplishments of true, known heroes, for fear that the current corral of candidates, congressmen and political operatives who seem to hog the headlines these days look downright puny in comparison.
Sally Ride was a scholar, an astronaut and an entrepreneur. Her degrees from Stanford, B.S., M.A. and a Ph.D. in Physics were clear proof of her brilliance and dedication to science. And, in the 70s, a time when many women were just beginning to enter male-dominated fields, Sally was a standout. What many people may not know is that Sally was also an English major at Stanford, and it was perhaps her superb ability to communicate, both verbally and in writing, that translated the complexity of science into everyday language to inspire new generations of kids who wanted to be astronauts and captivated the public.
As the first American woman to enter earth orbit in space, Sally became a thing of legend. And she used her fame and her knowledge for good.
In 1987, Sally Ride wrote a report for NASA, expressing her concerns that NASA had begun deviating from its core mission. She urged a stronger focus on space travel, outposts on the moon and, eventually, travel to Mars. The report was not well received by the NASA bureaucracy and Sally Ride retired and became a professor at Stanford.
But Sally was right to call her report NASA Leadership & America’s Future in Space. NASA had, and continues, to stray from its core mission. The U.S. space program has, essentially, been canceled. Instead of pushing the agency to focus on its core mission and core competencies, Obama has allowed NASA to take itself out of the space business, and thus take the country out of space for the next 30 years.
Worse, to put a man in space, America will now be required to pay Russia for shuttle space. Not too surprisingly, Russia has already stepped forward and declared that the next decade will be "the era of the Soyuz" as Russian space exploration continues.
When I met Sally Ride (we share a 2003 entrepreneurial visionary award), she had become an entrepreneur. Her company, which she had started in 2001, focused on grabbing the attention of the next generation through books for kids about science and space, and seminars and teaching materials for elementary and high school teachers .
Ride understood the power of business and the positive good that can come from capitalism well deployed. She understood that waiting for the government to take action was not necessarily the best way to get something done. And she understood that, often, the private sector can do better than the government, and at substantially less cost.
Sally Ride also understood that many of our problems, in this country with attracting a new generation into careers in math and science, lay with the teacher corps--oftentimes so unionized and so narrowly focused in what a teacher can and cannot teach in a curriculum, that all enthusiasm, from both student and teacher, is lost.
She was no stranger to the political machine, but unlike many other celebrities trotting up to Capitol Hill, who seem to be motivated by a combination of media stunt and activism, Sally only came when called. She worked on several Blue Ribbon commissions, including the prestigious and contentious Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger. Ride was familiar with congressional grandstanding, political witch-hunts and Washington’s CYA-at-all-costs mentality. But she didn’t let that stop her from taking a tough stand.
So many women, moving up the professional ladder try too hard to “be one of the boys” or to break into “the old boys’ club”. Sally Ride proved she could be more than just one of the boys, and that sometimes, being in a club of one is just fine.
Sally Ride was also an inspiration to anyone who ever considered a career change. At least three times, she changed her course professionally. Sally Ride, in academia, in space and in business empowered women to enter fields previously restricted to them because of gender, and she did it with a quiet heroism and without a lot of fanfare.
Sadly, many of the news articles written on Ride focused predominantly on the fact that she was gay. So what? Big deal. In what appears to be an effort to pander to the LGBT community, press coverage highlighted Ride’s sexual preference over her other accomplishments.
It is natural in Washington these days for special interest groups to grab at any straw to advance their issues, but one wonders: if the 2012 International AIDS conference had not been in Washington, DC the week that Sally Ride died, would the main stream media have deigned to give her death any coverage at all?
Each week, dozens of books and articles on leaders and leadership make it to print. Many of them, as a subtext, bemoan the current scarcity of “true” leaders. The truth is that we do have leaders, though they are not always the ones who make the leads in front page stories. Our nation has extraordinary Americans, doing extraordinary things, everyday, all around us. We just don’t value them the way we should.
Dr. Sally Ride showed the world what America was all about—that we truly are the land of opportunity. She showed the world that it’s up to each of us to do our best with every opportunity that comes our way, without entitlements, without handouts. She was an exemplary role model in self-sufficiency and common sense and the power of free market enterprise to change the world.
There are lots of folks talking about making the world a better place, but then they wait for the government to do it. Not Sally. She just did it. She made the world a better place, and we are all just a bit better off because an exceptional young woman once looked to the stars and made her dream a reality.