Whenever someone meets me, it doesn’t take them long to ask me the question, “How did you get so into space?” Given that I’ve likely just worked the space shuttle into a conversation about owls or mentioned a solar flare as part of ordering a pizza, it’s not surprising.
It could have been all the episodes of Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica (the original), and Space 1999 I watched as a kid, or the memory I have of standing in our kitchen watching a lunar eclipse out the window while my father explained each step with an apple and an orange.
But in 1983, at the age of eight, I moved to the Fiji Islands with my family, and something took it to the next level. I saw brilliant stars and the Milky Way in a way I never had before. My father pointed out the first satellite I’d ever seen cruising across the night sky. There was no TV, so I read books like 2010 Space Odyssey and Contact.
That summer I was sitting on the floor of our house in Suva and an announcement came on the nightly radio news. The first American woman, Sally Ride, just flew in space.
I knew from that moment forward that I would also someday fly in space. Somehow, she made it possible.
She became synonymous with women’s achievements in space and science and with my own path to making that possible. When I went to college and struggled between my love for science and my love for communicating, I chose English Literature as my major all the while thinking, “Sally Ride got a degree in English, it still means I can be an astronaut, right?”
Two years ago, I took my first step and flew in zero gravity aboard the ZeroG plane. As my hair floated in a halo around my face, I thought of Sally Ride and those first images of her on the shuttle.
I admired how she was willing to hold NASA accountable to the highest standards of conduct, participating in both the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia review boards. Her dedication to space education, but particularly encouraging young girls to follow that path, made her an inspiration even after a relatively short career with NASA.
Sadly, I never got to meet her. Given how young she was, I always thought there would be time. But she will continue to inspire others, and I know I will think of her when I eventually make it into orbit.