The Humility And Determination Of Sally Ride

America's first woman in space inspired thousands of women and girls. Astronaut Sally Ride died Monday of pancreatic cancer. For more on Ride's life and legacy, host Michel Martin speaks with Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic American woman astronaut; and retired Air Force Colonel Pamela Melroy, a former NASA astronaut and the second woman to command a shuttle mission.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, as sports fans around the world look forward to the start of the Olympics, we'll check in with a star of the U.S. women's soccer team, Sydney Leroux. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we are taking a closer look at the life and legacy of a pioneering American, Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. She died yesterday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 61 years old.

After her mission on the space shuttle Challenger in 1983, Sally Ride became a hero for many aspiring astronauts, but particularly for girls who wanted careers in space and science. She talked about that in a 2003 interview with my colleague from MORNING EDITION, Steve Inskeep. Here's a short clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SALLY RIDE: All you need to do is look into the eyes of the kids growing up today. When you mention astronauts, the planets, the space program to them, their eyes just light up. It really captivates them and it ignites something deep inside of all of us.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about Sally Ride, so we're joined now by Ellen Ochoa. She's currently the deputy director of the Johnson Space Center and she's also a trailblazer in her own right. She was the first Latina in space.

Also with us, Colonel Pamela Melroy. She piloted two shuttle missions and served as the commander on the 2007 Discovery shuttle flight, making her another trailblazer, only the second woman to command a shuttle. Colonel Melroy is retired from the Air Force and now she leads field operations at the Office of Commercial Space Transportation for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us, and of course our condolences on the loss of this friend and colleague.

ELLEN OCHOA: Thank you very much, Michel.

PAMELA MELROY: Yeah, thank you. It is a tragic loss.

MARTIN: Ellen Ochoa, I'd like to start with you because you've called Sally Ride one of your biggest inspirations. In fact, I remember that when you and I had a conversation on this program some time ago, you mentioned that. What was it about her that inspired you particularly?

OCHOA: When she went on her first flight, I was at Stanford in the middle of getting my PhD. Of course a few years before, when the first six women astronauts were selected, that was - you know, it had a huge impact on me, even though at that time I really had never thought about becoming an astronaut.

But when I was in graduate school and the shuttles started flying and people were talking about, you know, maybe becoming astronauts, I realized that was something that I would absolutely love to do, combine my interests in doing engineering and research and going into space all in one career.

So to see her in space - and she had an undergraduate degree in physics, just like I did, and she had a PhD from Stanford, and I was in the middle of getting a PhD from Stanford, I mean it just really helped convince me that I wasn't, you know, completely crazy in thinking about trying to become an astronaut myself.

MARTIN: Colonel Melroy, what about you? You were just graduating from college in 1983 during that space shuttle mission. What do you remember about it and what effect do you think it had on you and your career?

MELROY: Well, I remember it very clearly because Sally came to speak at MIT after her first mission, so I had the opportunity to hear her speak and, you know, and shake her hand afterwards, and I had already decided that I wanted to be a pilot astronaut and I also majored in physics. But to meet her was absolutely electrifying for me. It sort of cemented all of my desires.

MARTIN: Did she seem to be mindful of the effect that she had on young girls and young women who were interested in following her path?

MELROY: I think she was almost a little bit bemused by the tremendous outflow of emotional connections that were happening after her flight and it was really interesting to see her personal humility, and also, you know, great determination and passion for what she was doing.

MARTIN: Ellen Ochoa, the first of your four space shuttle flights came a decade after Sally Ride's mission. Do you think her work changed the prospects for women in NASA, particularly given just how beautifully she carried herself? You know, as you both pointed out, just - you know, a great spirit, great humility, great work ethic, you know, all of that. Do you think she was a game changer?

OCHOA: Oh, there's no question that the fact that - I joined the astronaut office 12 years after the first women joined - that all of them, collectively, had really made an impact on the office and made it so much easier for me to come in and do my job and just be seen as one of the astronauts and work on what I wanted to work on, which is be the best crew member I could possibly be.

And with Sally sort of setting that goal and, you know, she went out just to do the very best job she could onboard - it definitely affected all of our ability later on to go out and just focus on doing that as part of our job and be accepted as part of the crew and be contributors in every way possible.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and we're paying tribute to Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. She died yesterday. We're talking with two trailblazers in their own right. Ellen Ochoa, she's now deputy director of the Johnson Space Center. She was the first Latina in space.

Also with us, Colonel Pamela Melroy, the second woman to command a space shuttle mission. She now serves as the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

Ellen Ochoa, when we talked last year, we talked about the end of the NASA shuttle program. I'm just wondering if you think that the loss of that program means a lost opportunity for the next Sally Ride to emerge. I'm just wondering where the opportunities to break ground are going to come from now, and I'm sure, you know, Colonel Melroy, I know you want to weigh in on this too. But Ellen, I'm going to ask you this first.

OCHOA: Well, there are still lots of opportunities. Right now onboard the International Space Station is Suni Williams, another one of our wonderful women astronauts here at NASA. You might remember that when she was up there before, she actually ran a marathon in space, and so she exhibits a lot of the same qualities that Sally did in terms of, you know, being smart, being athletic, being very personable.

So we want to make sure people understand we are still flying in space, both men and women, and I think there's lots of opportunities.

MARTIN: Colonel Melroy, what do you think?

MELROY: I just really see that there are more opportunities spreading in all the sectors for space and that just means more opportunities for young women, and I'm really excited about thinking about a woman perhaps being the first person to set foot on Mars someday, and so when you put it in that perspective, you see there's a lot of opportunities out there.

MARTIN: You two are the last people, I would think - including Sally Ride - who would be in any way engaged in a pity party, but sometimes being first is not, you know, unadulterated fun. Did she ever talk about the less fun side of the scrutiny?

OCHOA: I didn't, you know, know Sally personally when she was in the astronaut office. By the time I joined she had left, but I did get to know her later because of the company that she started, Sally Ride Science. And so she reached out to me and to many of the other women astronauts and asked us to be speakers at the science festivals that they put on, which were particularly geared to getting middle-school girls interested in science and engineering and giving them some idea what it was about, giving them some hands-on opportunities.

And so my interactions with her through her company and everything that she was doing to bring science and engineering to middle-school girls were all so positive, and you could tell she really, really had a passion for it.

I remember she told me a story a few years ago of - she'd gotten a letter from a girl who had said that her teacher told her that it was impossible for women to be astronauts. I mean, this was in the 21st century. It was not anywhere near the time that she flew in space. It was only about 10 years ago and she just couldn't believe that the word still wasn't getting out to girls here, and so she was very, very passionate about making sure that girls had the opportunity to know that all these careers were available to them and to give them an idea of what they were like.

MARTIN: Colonel, anything you want to add?

MELROY: I think that Sally was a very private person, but she found a way to really take the experience of being in the public eye to promote STEM education, and I also got asked by Sally to speak at the science festivals and have done so because I just strongly believe in her vision. I think it was a great and wonderful way to take the fame that she had and really focus it in a very positive way.

MARTIN: Colonel Pamela Melroy was the second woman to lead a space shuttle mission. She is now in the Office of Commercial Space Transportation at the FAA and she was kind enough to join us from her office in Washington, D.C. Also with us, Ellen Ochoa, deputy director of the Johnson Space Center, first Latina in space, and she was kind enough to join us from her office in Houston. They were both sharing their reflections on the life and legacy of Sally Ride.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

OCHOA: Thank you, Michel.

MELROY: Thank you.

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