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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

Other than the less-than-stratospheric grades she gets for "instructor availability," Ride receives exceptional student evaluations. "The heaven-sent Professor Ride knew the cosmos forward and backward," wrote a student in Ride's Physics of Space Science & Exploration course. "She undressed extraterrestrial physics until it stood there buck naked for everyone to comprehend," said another. "Yet, Professor Ride acted as if she herself had nothing to do with space . . . so little did she draw from personal experience."

On the one hand, Ride's detachment from the personal seems to reflect genuine humility. On the other, she separates herself from the human realm in a way that suggests she dwells on a level a little above the rest of us. She's asked about the pressures facing professional women and whether they were factors in her divorce. "No," she responds tersely. The reasons for the breakup were "just life."

Hawley is more loquacious. The two went their separate ways after five years of marriage, he says, because "she wanted to leave NASA, and I didn't."

Ride is consumed by the study of science. "Science is fun," she says brightly. "Science is curiosity. We all have natural curiosity. Science is a process of investigating. It's posing questions and coming up with a method. It's delving in. It's a lot more important than memorizing things like fila. Memorizing fila is not science. Science is solving puzzles."

Though described as a born scholar and teacher, she's never been drawn to kids. For that reason, those who know her best are amazed at her enthusiasm for EarthKAM. Her mother, Joyce Ride, says her older daughter announced when she was a teen that she never wanted to have children. "And she never varied from that position. I've always honored it."

Even Ride, who earned a PhD in physics at Stanford, admits she's surprised at how swiftly EarthKAM has gathered momentum, and how much time she's devoted to it. "I love this program," she says. "I choose to spend time on it. The students' excitement is contagious."

Ride was a high school junior and tennis champion at the Westlake School for Girls in Bel-Air when she was introduced to science. She names her beloved mentor in the dedication in one of her three children's books. Dr. Elizabeth Mommaerts was, as Ride has described her, "logic personified."

Ride is most comfortable in a world of logic and precision. She wants things to make sense. She's a master of the New York Times crossword puzzle, a disciplined runner, a fit 48-year-old athlete who once ranked among the Top 20 junior tennis stars in the country. "To my sorrow, she hasn't played since college," her mother says. "When she couldn't tell the ball precisely where to go, she didn't do it anymore."

Ride is a no-frills woman who dressed for our interview in a conventional navy and forest green argyle-patterned sweater, navy slacks and matching flats. She's a Trekkie, a down-to-earth football and baseball fan more comfortable ordering a beer at a bar than chardonnay at a bistro. She tends toward a healthy diet, but isn't above pizza and Eskimo Pies. "I know myself very well," she says. "I have a lot of common sense. I know what needs to be done and how to approach it. I have an ability to work with people on large enterprises."

Her sister, the Rev. Karen "Bear" Ride, director of the Peace Center of the United University Church at USC, describes her as "a scientist in the truest sense. Sally is much more interested in science than in personal relationships."

Bear, a widely respected minister, is a divorced mother of two who is openly gay. She's delivered sermons about sexuality, but doesn't discuss such intimacies with her sister, who is two years older. "Sally knows Susan and I have lived together for quite a while and that we share a house. But she prefers not to talk about it." The Ride sisters rarely get together. In fact, Sally has never seen her sister in the pulpit. Bear says it isn't a personal slight as much as a statement of Sally's profound dislike of church. Even as a girl, Bear says, her sister hated going so much that her parents, both Presbyterian elders, finally relented and let her stay home. Other than a few official occasions, "Sally hasn't darkened the door of a church since."

"I believe there are two types of people," Bear adds with affection. "Those who would do anything to go on the space shuttle, and those, like me, who would do anything not to have to go on the space shuttle, and can't imagine doing it. I only fly in big planes, and I have to have an aisle seat. Our dad was afraid of heights. No one knows where Sally came from.

"She's always been very amazing. I learned early on not to compete, as a survival technique."

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