Astronaut Sally Ride loses last battle on Earth


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The Independent Online

Friends, feminists and former colleagues are mourning the death of Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, who died on Monday at the age of 61, after what was described as a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer.

A pioneer in death as well as life, Dr Ride used her obituary to posthumously "come out" as a lesbian, instructing close family members to publish a statement on her website announcing that she will be survived by Tam O'Shaughnessy, "her partner of 27 years".

It was a fitting gesture from a private woman whose public battle against prejudice began in 1983, when she was first selected to fly on the space shuttle Challenger. Later in life, she ran a company which aimed to help girls learn about and enjoy science.

Bear Ride, Sally's sister, said the lesbian relationship was kept under wraps to prevent it becoming tabloid fodder during Sally's lifetime. "I hope it makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that another one of their heroes was like them," she told the website Buzzfeed. Dr Ride had an uneasy relationship with fame from the moment she entered the limelight at the age of 32, when she had to endure a barrage of highly misogynistic questions at her pre-launch press conference.

"Would she be wearing make-up in space?" one reporter asked. "Did she worry about crying on the job if something went wrong?" wondered another. When a journalist enquired as to whether Nasa had issued a special brassiere, she replied tartly: "There's no sag in zero-G!"

Dr Ride, who had a PhD in astrophysics from Stanford, pointed out that her famous flight wasn't a world first: Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space 20 years earlier. Dr Ride was upset to be considered a novelty.

Dr Ride flew twice in Challenger, but her prospects of a third journey disappeared in 1986, when the shuttle exploded. After leaving Nasa, she started Sally Ride Science, which provided study materials for teachers.