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Ross Andrews - What's in a name?

The biography of Sally Ride raises many questions and answers many. The most interesting to me is how the name of the first American woman to go into space is so suited to magnify her effect on lives.

When NASA invited women to apply for admission to become members of crews to the space shuttles Sally Ride saw an opportunity that she never expected to be open to her. She was educated in astrophysics and so leaped at the chance of a life time. She was one among several women to go through the comprehensive screening process and be accepted into the pool of trainees. There were men in the pool, too. No division of training based on gender, something new in world.

In literature and cinema it is common for women, and for men, to adopt stage names. Mary Ann Evans became George Eliot, author of The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner. Armadine Aurore Lucile Dupin wrote over 100 books under the name George Sand. Norma Jean Baker is better known as Marilyn Monroe. No more information needed to bring her career into focus.

Sally Ride needed no pseudonym. When she switched her efforts from winning tennis titles and trophies to flying jet aircraft and operating the Canadarm in space shuttles, her name was chanted in the streets. She used every opportunity to direct the attention away from herself to opportunities opening for girls and women.

Thinking about names brought a well known quote to mind. I had to consult a dictionary of quotations to determine who said it.

"What's in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet."

This was written by William Shakespeare, and was spoken on stage by Juliet Capulet as she struggled to handle the love affair with Romeo Montague. Probably the person making the speech was a boy. Girls in Elizabethan England hadn't been accepted in acting companies.

What, I ask myself, if one of the other women had been assigned to the crew for the maiden flight? If both were on board it would have taken some of the attention away from Sally Ride. If Sally was not on board it would have kept her out of the public eye entirely. American girls would have surely lost the chance to hitch their hopes on such a super nova.

Sally Ride's ambition went beyond being an idol as an astronaut. She took advantage of her popularity, not for personal gain. She left NASA and started a company to teach girls, and boys if they wanted to attend the sessions, the joy of mathematics and science. Because she did it and so did other women with her, girls realized that with effort they could do anything that boys could do.

Sally Ride had degrees in literature as well as in astrophysics. She and her partners were able to write books in language the youngest scholars could understand.

To my surprise, Sally's account of the president's commission to investigate the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia with all its crew in 1986, it differed from the story told by Richard Feynman. He took credit for finding the O ring weakness. An un-named person handed Sally Ride a sealed envelope in a crowded corridor. She showed the contents to her superior and they assigned Feynman to explain what went wrong. Feynman was not a member of NASA. Any member would have serious repercussions for embarrassing the commission.

Feynman's work isn't denigrated by this revelation, but his character is humanized.

Both Feynman and Ride lost their lives to cancer, but their work will inspire young people for years to come.


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