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COVER STORY : Private Property : Ask Sally Ride About Her Research. Or Her Program to Revolutionize Science Education in America. But Skip the Queries on the Glory of Space Travel, and Don't Even Think About Anything Personal.

August 29, 1999|JANET WISCOMBE | Janet Wiscombe is a frequent contributor to The Times who last wrote about professional beach volleyball for the magazine

Sally Ride doesn't look like a woman outrageous enough to sit on top of a stack of enormous flaming rockets. There's absolutely nothing about her refined appearance or manner to suggest she has the grit to travel into the great, dark, airless abyss strapped to the seat of a hurtling piece of machinery. She's small, reserved, a reluctant heroine uneasy with eminence, a self-possessed but distant star who navigates her rarefied universe with quiet control.

Ask her about propulsion or the effect of clouds on radiative energy, and she's forthright, focused, even friendly. Ask about the psychological and spiritual impact of space travel, and she shuts down. There are astronauts who've returned to Earth with epiphanies about universal connectedness and the meaning of existence. Sally Ride is not one of them. "The experience of being in space didn't change my perspective of myself or of the planet or of life," she declares. "I had no spiritual experience."

Ride was the first American woman in space, a kickoff to a series of firsts for women, including last month's flight of Air Force Col. Eileen Collins, the first woman to command an American space flight, the shuttle Columbia.

But Dr. Sally Kristen Ride does not relish the first-woman-in space mantle. On June 18, 1983, when she climbed into the flight engineer's seat of Challenger, she was a sensation: brilliant, pretty, girlish and brave. "Ride, Sally Ride!" a global fan club wildly cheered. Six days later she returned to glory on Earth. She endured a media sentence, allowing her NASA handlers to plant her on lecterns like a potted palm. Still she managed to orbit the national consciousness relatively unknown. She was pleasant, yet guarded. She made it clear that she wore the ID of scientist/astronaut, not the badge of a feminist space jockette or symbol of women's progress.

Sixteen years later she still wears the same ID. And she continues to collect achievements. She is a professor at UC San Diego, a scientist, a two-time National Spaceflight Medal winner. Her most recent accomplishment is the creation of a national program designed to attract millions of young students to science. Her greatest hope is that EarthKAM will do nothing short of revolutionizing science education in America. But please don't expect her to gush about the thrill of reaching for the stars.

"Talking is contrary to her personality," says her ex-husband, friend and e-mail pal, veteran astronaut Steven Hawley, a crew member on the latest Columbia mission. "She's more from Mars than from Venus."

Last fall, the California public school system listed Ride in elementary school history textbooks as an official hero, placing her in the company of Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein and Jackie Robinson. (Indira Gandhi didn't make the cut.) In a society that worships superstars and manufactures heroes, what is astonishing is that Sally Ride is the real thing, a bona fide American hero. Yet her photo has never been plastered on a bus or a Wheaties box. No one recognizes her at the supermarket. She's the antithesis of the gregarious, grinning John Glenn. She's peered down from the heavens and said no to celebrity, though she does accept fees as a corporate and university lecturer on the national circuit. She rarely grants interviews, and when she does, her answers are often cursory. She wouldn't be photographed for this story; the photos had to be purchased elsewhere.

Years ago she told a reporter, "I've spent my whole life not talking to people, and I don't see why I should start now."

So, yes, Sally Ride is a bona fide hero. But don't look for the Sally Ride Barbie any time soon.

*

Ride is a reclusive theoretical physicist who works 12-and 16-hour days, devotes weekends to writing in the study of her La Jolla townhouse and has slipped almost unnoticed from a galactic media spotlight to the cloistered halls of academe. "My priority is my work and the work of others," she says simply.

These days that work is propelling her once again into uncharted orbits. Four years ago she developed EarthKAM, a cooperative classroom experiment involving students from middle school through college. The program allows kids to research a natural phenomenon on Earth and then take pictures of it with digital cameras mounted in the crew cabins of NASA space shuttles. The pictures are then viewed in the classroom by computer via the Internet.

Currently 10,000 children from 85 schools from La Crescenta to Langley, Va., are participating in EarthKAM. The number could multiply by tens of thousands by next year. Every week Ride receives scores of letters from schoolchildren and their parents seeking reference material on space and on her as an astronaut. She receives dozens of requests for autographs a week, and she answers them.

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