Ex Astris, Scientia

“From the stars, knowledge.”

This happens to be the Latin motto of Starfleet Academy, but it’s a phrase that’s stuck in my head as reflection of where I think our future as a species lies. Few people embodied that spirit better than Dr. Sally Ride, who died yesterday at the age of 61 from pancreatic cancer. She was a huge influence on my early childhood dreams of becoming a scientist and astronaut; outside of my parents, she was absolutely one of my heroes.

Grief at a Distance

I first found out about the death of Dr. Ride on Twitter, by someone retweeting Boing Boing. This news came as quite a shock, as she was relatively young, and had kept her cancer diagnosis private. I even experienced the denial stage a bit, seeking to verify that she had in fact died; I suppose it’s not fair to Boing Boing that I didn’t trust a retweet of theirs, but Twitter is not exactly the place to get reliable information about celebrity deaths.

This affected me emotionally far more than the death of Steve Jobs did, a comparison I can’t help but make since I wrote about his death as well. I was finishing up work, and didn’t get much done for half an hour or so as I found myself suppressing tears, and reading a few of the early obituaries. I didn’t jump into the discussion of her life on Twitter, but I did write a brief tribute on Facebook, and hammered out some quick thoughts on Google+ while I was in the moment (all of which are replicated here in longer form).

There were a couple of factors that made this harder for me – the first I think was the surprise element (whereas Steve’s illness had been fairly public, if spun in favor of recovery). The second was that, as influential as Dr. Ride had been on me as a kid, I had been pretty disconnected from her post-astronaut career in science education. I was brought back to how I felt about her when I was little, while The Steve was indirectly present in my recent day-to-day experiences. The last aspect is that Sally Ride inspired my childhood dreams on a path that I did not end up following.

Hero in the Blue Jumpsuit

I was a huge fan of Dr. Ride when I was little. I knew enough of her biography that I had decided, by age 5, that I would go to Stanford, get an engineering degree (aerospace if possible), become an astronaut, and then settle down to design airplanes for Boeing. When I got my own bedroom around that time, my decor of choice was a floor-to-ceiling photo wallpaper of one of the space shuttles gliding in for a landing. My recollection is that in 2nd grade, I did a presentation on Dr. Ride, complete with blue jumpsuit, velcro, and NASA patch that my mom had sewn for me. I thought I also wore it for Halloween that year, but my mom checked the photo albums and I must be misremembering.

Suffice it to say, I was, and still am, a huge fan of space exploration, and Sally Ride was for me a role model who had gotten that opportunity. Obviously I haven’t become an astronaut, but I still plan to go into space one day, even if it’s just as a tourist. I never went to Space Camp, and I didn’t major in aerospace engineering, but I think that fundamental spirit of scientific exploration is still with me, and Dr. Ride’s example was part of my inspiration in that area.

I’ve noticed a lot of the coverage mentioning that she was an inspiration for women in the sciences. While that’s true, I feel like that makes it sound like she wasn’t trying to be an inspiration to the little Nicks of the world. I don’t want to make this tribute political, but I think that young children can learn a love for science long before they develop a gender identity, and that Dr. Ride shouldn’t be remembered merely as a role model for girls or as the first American woman in space. She was a scientist, an astronaut, an educator… a hero.

Tonight, I will look up to the stars, and remember.