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Rick Kupchella remembers co-author, astronaut Sally Ride

America's first woman in space has left us. Sally Ride died of pancreatic cancer Monday at age 61. She was known as a successful physicist and astronaut, but she also worked tirelessly to inspire girls to future success. In 2004, she collaborated with BringMeTheNews' Rick Kupchella on a children's book. He offers this appreciation.
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In 2004, Sally Ride collaborated with BringMeTheNews' Rick Kupchella on a children's book. He offers this appreciation.

Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space, died Monday at the age of 61 after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer.

She was an incredible woman - and a working inspiration to generations of girls.

I worked with her several years ago on a children’s book. It was a simple verse for young girls (I have two), written to inspire them to work and achieve whatever they can imagine (Girls Can! Make it Happen.). Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Olympic great Jackie Joyner Kersee also participated in the writing of that book.

I found my notes from my conversations with Dr. Ride today and read through them again for the first time in years.

I share them with you now, as something of a tribute to her... it was evidence of a brilliant – and selfless woman - dedicated to her work with young girls.

Sally was born & raised in southern California... devoted to her father, and a crazy sports fan from a very young age.

The way she described it, her love of the outdoors and physical activity gave way to a love of sports and revealed a great competitive drive. She was into everything: swimming, baseball, tennis... she talked about playing basketball with her father all the time.

It was the competition that got her going. “I wanted to win,” she told me. “I always knew it was how you play the game ... but winning, that was nice.”

She also liked problem solving. Her passion for math and science became life-long, of course, and led ultimately to her work not only as an astronaut... but also in development of the Sally Ride Science Academy, Science Foundation and Science Camp. Like so much of our conversation, she traced things back to her interactions with her father (she was the oldest of two girls). Family trips... and long nights listening to sports with him on the radio.

Her father was a teacher... her mother a homemaker. They encouraged her to pursue her natural interests which played out in all kinds of ways... particularly given her interest in math... and problem solving. “When the family took a vacation in the family car, driving for hours and hours, (I would think) we’re going this fast, it’s this far, how long will it take us to get there? I loved doing that kind of thing.”

I asked her what early childhood lessons were most relevant to her ultimate success in life, and she told me right away, “I think I know the answer.”

She said, “People don’t realize that one of the skills really important to astronauts – one of the things that’s critical to your success as an astronaut – is to have a good concept of teamwork. And to know what it means to be a functioning member of a team, and to play the role you need to play on the team. Not just on the "astronaut team", but the way the astronaut crew itself – is part of a much larger team.”

She said, “In the astronaut selection process, they actually select for people they think can fit in well with the other astronauts – the other people they’ll be on the team with. As I look back, one of the things I learned – very early in life – not so much in school, but in living and from my parents, was the importance of teamwork.”

Her greatest role models, as a child, she said were her parents: "And sports figures!" she told me. “I knew every name on the LA Dodgers. Those were the people I looked up to. Them and my parents most of all.”

She said she still carried the lessons her parents taught her as a child. That they “understood very clearly the importance of education and the importance of studying and progressing in school. And I think I got those messages very early. I was building the foundation for whatever I was going to do later on, and it was important to build it very early on – 8-9-10-11-12.”

The other great message they gave her was “the message 'dream high'," she said, "you can do what you want to do. Set your mind to it and you cannot have a goal that’s too high.”

Despite all her preparation (she ultimately earned a Ph.D.) – and given her natural interest in science and math, she said she had no idea what she would become of her life. “You just don’t know,” she told me.

“I happened to see an advertisement saying NASA was taking applications for astronauts. I was lucky to have seen the ad. But I’d spent years and years and years preparing to take advantage of that opportunity – without knowing which opportunity it was that would come my way.”

So ... this famous life and career of hers... I asked her: "Was it fate or strategy?".

She laughed and said, “Probably fate, when you look at the odds of becoming you ... it’s extraordinary.”

Learn more about the Sally Ride Science Foundation here. The New York Times has a fitting remembrance of her life and career.

Here she talks about her shuttle flight, and the pressure of being the first American woman in space:

A bit more about that historic flight from NASA:

And NASA has a great image gallery.

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