Loving Sally Ride, The First American Woman In Space : Short Wave Tam O'Shaughnessy and Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, shared a passion for getting girls involved in STEM. It led them to co-found Sally Ride Science, a company focused on equity and inclusion in science education. But, there was much more to Tam and Sally's relationship. Tam gives us an intimate look at their decades-long partnership: how they met and fell in love, the pressures they faced as a queer couple, and their long-awaited and public coming out with Sally's death in 2012. We want to know which LGBTQ+ scientists have inspired you! Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.

Loving Sally Ride

Tam O'Shaughnessy's 27-Year Partnership With The First American Woman In Space

Loving Sally Ride

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In 1983, space shuttle Challenger and the STS-7 crew launched from NASA's Kennedy Space Center. With the launch, Mission Specialist Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space. NASA hide caption

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NASA

In 1983, space shuttle Challenger and the STS-7 crew launched from NASA's Kennedy Space Center. With the launch, Mission Specialist Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space.

NASA

Tam O'Shaughnessy and Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space — in 1983, aboard the space shuttle Challenger — shared a passion for getting girls involved in STEM. It led them to co-found Sally Ride Science, a company focused on equity and inclusion in science education.

There was much more to O'Shaughnessy and Ride's relationship, however. They met as kids in the early 1960s and developed an instant connection. Years later, they fell in love.

But their relationship remained largely private until after Ride's death in 2012 at age 61. In an interview with Short Wave host Madeline Sofia, O'Shaughnessy remembers how Ride opened the door to that revelation shortly before she died.

O'Shaughnessy says she asked Ride, "Who am I going to be in the world?"

"And she kind of thought about it for a second," O'Shaughnessy remembers. "And she said, you decide. Whatever you decide will be just fine. ...

"Very few people in general knew that she was gay. So it was really Sally telling me to do what I thought was best and then my friends helping me realize that I needed to be true to myself. And it changed my life, and I wish Sally could experience that."

In the interview, O'Shaughnessy offers an intimate look at their 27-year partnership: how they met, the pressures they faced as a queer couple, and their long-awaited and public coming out.

Below are highlights of the interview, edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On Sally Ride being a role model for girls and young women

If I had to list the labels that she liked, she was an athlete, she was a physicist, and in fact, being a physicist was her favorite. It's who she thought she was. And then, of course, she was an astronaut. And it's true that she became a role model for other girls and young women around the world who thought, wow, if Sally Ride can fly in space, you know, maybe I can, too. Maybe I want to be an astronaut. Maybe I want to be a scientist.

On meeting Ride while playing tennis in junior tournaments in California when they were young

Sally and I just sort of — we wanted to be talking and getting to know each other. We didn't care about the tennis match. And so any time in tennis, every odd game, you change sides of the court. And we would sit on the bench, drink water, twirl our rackets and talk for a long time instead of, you know, let's keep playing the match. And our parents were like, what are they doing? But I actually think that from that young age, we liked each other. There was a connection. And we enjoyed spending time together.

On she and Ride, in their early 30s, realizing they wanted to be together

I had realized that I was gay a few years earlier, and I never thought of Sally kind of romantically. And then we just started spending time together. She would come to Atlanta for a few days in between training and giving talks and being a famous astronaut. One late afternoon, it's like I thought about her differently and I could tell that she did, too.

It was kind of a magic moment. When she came to town, we'd just get tons of exercise and just talk — talk about her experiences in Houston and we'd talk about the old tennis days. And I'd talk about biology and we'd talk about what we wanted to do in the future. And just this one day, we'd gone for a long walk. We'd gone to the pizza parlor, we walked back to my house, and we're sitting on the couch and my dog, my old cocker spaniel, missed me, so I just sort of petted her. And I suddenly felt a hand on my lower back, just a gentle — and it was like, what? It gave me the chills. And I looked back and it was just like, Sally was in love with me. And in that moment, I realized that I was in love with her, too. I guess it was growing maybe in bits and pieces over a long time. But it was really that moment that it was like, oh my (laughs), you know? Yeah, it was just a special moment.

On why she and Ride kept their relationship from the public

The first long while that we were together, we invited each other everywhere. We were not verbally open. Well, Sally was not verbally open with friends and family. I was. But I would wonder what people were thinking. And it was awkward sometimes for me.

I did want to be more open. And when Sally retired from NASA, she moved out to California, and I shortly thereafter moved out to be with her, too. And so we were both professors. And it naturally would have evolved that we became more open about our relationship, but then we decided to start Sally Ride Science. And then that made us go back kind of — OK, get back in the closet, except for friends and family — because we were dependent on corporate sponsorships. And we just didn't think that Exxon Mobil, General Electric — you name it — Lockheed Martin would sponsor us if they knew that two of the founders, especially Sally, that Sally and I were together.

It was [difficult]. But then you kind of get used to stuff, too. And we worked so hard. We just worked. We loved building the company and to build something and try to make a difference. It was exciting and fun.

On Ride opening up about their relationship shortly before her death

I think it was much harder for me than it was for Sally. And we were actually at a conference announcing our new books. And I noticed that Sally did not feel well and her cheeks were slightly yellow. We realized something was wrong with her, so caught the next plane home, and she got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. So we still weren't out — but Sally, as she got sicker and sicker and I went to every doctor's appointment with her. The nurse would say, well, who are you? And then Sally would just kind of look at her with that look Sally could give and say, she's my partner. So she finally kind of said the words.

On some final advice from Ride to O'Shaughnessy

A couple of weeks before she passed away, I told Sally that I wanted to have a big celebration — not like a funeral, not like a sad thing — but a celebration of her life and who she was with all our friends, our very important colleagues, her astronaut buddies, everybody that we could think of. And then I just started thinking, so we're going to have this big event that I'm going to organize. Many of the people know we're a couple, but most of them don't.

And so I went back upstairs and sat on Sally's little hospital bed and just said, you know what? Who am I going to be in the world? And she kind of thought about it for a second. And she was just lying down, you know, her hair completely shaved but just looking adorable (laughs), I might add. Salt and pepper little crew cut. And she said, you decide. Whatever you decide will be just fine. You decide. And, you know, that put me in shock.

Tam O'Shaughnessy, Sally Ride's life partner, accepts the Presidential Medal of Freedom on behalf of Ride from President Barack Obama at the White House in 2013. NASA/Carla Cioffi hide caption

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NASA/Carla Cioffi

Tam O'Shaughnessy, Sally Ride's life partner, accepts the Presidential Medal of Freedom on behalf of Ride from President Barack Obama at the White House in 2013.

NASA/Carla Cioffi

So I kind of ran downstairs and Sally's sister Bear was staying with us and one of our good friends. I said, you wouldn't believe what Sally just told me. And what should I do? I want to protect Sally. I want to protect NASA. And both Bear and Karen [Flammer, a close friend and co-founder of Sally Ride Science] said, tell the truth. That's who you are. That's who Sally is. And [I] basically wrote an obituary about Sally. So I made it clear that she and I were a couple for 27 years and I'm being left behind. Her mother was being left behind, Bear, nieces and nephews and so on. And that just took off when she passed away because most people didn't know she was ill. Very few people in general knew that she was gay. So it was really Sally telling me to do what I thought was best and then my friends helping me realize that I needed to be true to myself. And it changed my life, and I wish Sally could experience that, though.

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On accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom on behalf of Ride from President Barack Obama

First of all, I love President Obama and for him to be brave enough, I think, and just do the right thing. Sally's mother could have received the award, her sister, her former husband. And he selected me. It was an amazing experience. Gosh, I wish Sally had been around to see all this stuff and to experience kind of our authentic selves, as Billie Jean [King] would say. And I love that phrase actually. Be who you are. Don't cover it up.

We want to know which LGBTQ+ scientists have inspired you! Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.

This episode was produced by Brit Hanson, fact-checked by Indi Khera and edited by Viet Le. Avie Schneider produced for the web.