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When Sally Ride was accepted by NASA to train as an astronaut in 1978, her mother, Joyce, took maternal pride to new heights. With Sally’s younger sister, Bear, studying to be a minister, Joyce predicted confidently, “one of them will get to heaven.”
It was the quintessential family joke, one that Sally herself repeated in almost every speech. And there were many speeches. As the first American woman in space, she rocketed through the celestial glass ceiling on June 18, 1983 to prove that women, too, could have the right stuff. The 32-year-old physicist with a winning grin captivated and inspired millions of cheering admirers, many of whom — especially young women — translated her bold journey into their own tickets to success. If that door was open, they reasoned, so were countless others. Sally was, briefly, the most famous person on the planet.
Over time, she became a powerful role model for several generations, who looked to her for answers to every imaginable question — including the one posed to every astronaut upon returning to earth: Did you see God up there? And its corollary: Did you have a spiritual experience? It’s all part of the package, right alongside, How do you go to the bathroom? and, Did you run into any aliens?
On the God front, it goes with the territory. Astronauts are our emissaries to the unknown, the only human travelers to visit and return from the place where the deity — in whatever guise, for whatever organized form of prayer — is widely believed to dwell, at least symbolically. One glimpse of that divine perspective on the majesty of the cosmos, and the dazzling jewel of earth against the blackness of space, can incite the sort of stirrings that have made faith such a potent force. For some, the spiritual presence was so palpable they wanted to share it.
In 1968, as Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders became the first earthlings to enter lunar orbit, they concluded their live broadcast (beamed back to a rapt audience some 250,000 miles away) by reading aloud from the book of Genesis. It was Christmas Eve.
Seven months later, when Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong etched the first human footprints on the moon, Buzz Aldrin quietly celebrated communion before he followed onto the alien surface.
In search of, or in respect for, a higher power, space travelers over the years have included Bibles, crucifixes, a tiny Torah and a Koran among their personal effects when they launched. One spun a dreidel during Chanukkah; another asked Muslim clerics to determine which way to face Mecca when praying from the International Space Station.
Among those whose faith was confirmed or enhanced by their extraordinary adventure, moonwalker Gene Cernan writes in his book, The Last Man on the Moon, “No one in their right mind can see such a sight and deny the spirituality of the experience, nor the existence of a Supreme Being, whether their God be Buddha or Jesus Christ or Whoever . . . Someone, some being, some power placed our little world, our Sun and our Moon where they are in the dark void, and the scheme defies any attempt at logic. It is just too perfect and beautiful to have happened by accident . . . there were indeed moments when I honestly felt that I could reach out my hand . . . and touch the face of God.”
Even a distinctly nonobservant astronaut from a later era allowed a cleric friend to preside over the sprinkling of holy water on the shuttle on the eve before launch. The explanation? Just covering all the bases.
But Sally Ride? Not so much.
Her ancestry included generations of God-fearing souls, including an evangelical Methodist preacher who became the first Ride to reach American shores (in 1820) and Dutch Mennonites who found refuge from religious persecution in a corner of Russia provided by Catherine the Great. Sally’s parents were both Presbyterian elders in Encino, California, where she grew up. Sister Bear loved Sunday school. Sally, however, announced in junior high school that she was done with church. Weekend junior tennis tournaments became her Sunday morning activity.
As an astronaut, she deflected every effort by reporters to turn her into an orbital incarnation of her forebears. “Are you particularly religious?” asked Tom Brokaw before Sally’s pioneering flight. “My sister got most of the religion in the family,” she answered evenly. Bear, by then leading her own Presbyterian congregation, added, “She’s her own person and she certainly has her own belief system and it doesn’t have to fit into mine.” Nor was Bear willing to impose her own convictions on her sister’s mission.
Brokaw: Will you see this flight in any spiritual way?
Bear: No [Laughter].
Brokaw: A triumph of man and technology?
Bear: Of woman and technology.
The tables were turned briefly, on the eve of Sally’s launch, when Bear asked her sister, “‘Tell me why I shouldn’t be scared to death.’ And she said, ‘Because I’m not. I have complete trust in them, and you may not understand that, but you know me.’ We had a conversation about faith. It’s informed trust, and she said, ‘I know enough about this stuff that it’s worth trusting my life to.’”
Sally’s trust was in science and logic and the extraordinary combination of engineering brilliance and pure guts that had, among other miraculous achievements, sent a dozen men to the moon and back, and that had so far overseen six successful flights of the new space shuttle. On hers, the seventh, Sally elected to carry objects that were not holy symbols, but the touchstones of her earthly success. Among them: banners from her high school (Westlake), her college (Stanford), and the state of California; NASA medallions for her family and the other female astronauts; gold rings for her husband, fellow astronaut Steve Hawley, and herself.
(Steve and Sally had married quietly in a tiny ceremony presided over by her sister and his father, also a minister. Long after they divorced, when Sally had been in a loving relationship with Tam O’Shaughnessy for more than 25 years, the two women eschewed a formal, religious ceremony to become domestic partners. Tam downloaded the application from the Internet and then mailed it in.)
When Sally returned to earth after a triumphant week on Challenger, the first American woman in space told the world that the thing she’d remember most about the flight “is that it was fun. In fact, I’m sure it was the most fun I’ll ever have in my life.”
Still, some folks never got the message. “There are a lot of people who have asked me since I’ve come back whether I found religion in space,” Sally told Gloria Steinem in a TV interview, “or whether I had any mystical experiences up there. And no!”
Sally left NASA in 1987. Having gone up into space and seen the future, she turned her gaze downwards, toward earth — just like all the other stars. By 2008, the 20th anniversary of her flight, she had started her own company, Sally Ride Science, to encourage and support middle school girls in the study of science, math, and technology. She was also firmly committed to helping reverse the effects of climate change, largely because she saw from Challenger the vulnerability of the big blue marble we call home. In the process, she had learned how to redirect every question about the ethereal toward the more substantive.
“Was it spiritual as you kissed the heavens?” asked one TV interviewer, trying yet again to inspire believers. Sally responded smoothly, “You know, what was absolutely amazing to me was the feeling I had looking back at earth . . . it’s remarkable how beautiful our planet is, and how fragile it looks.”
What she never commented on was the fragility of its inhabitants, and the vulnerability of humans to the ravages of disease. In March 2011, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; it took her life 17 months later. Bear, who officiated at the graveside memorial, celebrated her sister’s remarkable achievements and led the small family group “to release Sally to the universe.” The message was clear to both scientists and believers: “Sally came from stardust, and to stardust she returns.” Which is, after all, a pretty good definition of heaven. Her mother, as usual, was right.
Lead image courtesy of NASA.