Family, friends and dignitaries gathered for the naming ceremony of R/V Sally Ride on a sun-splashed day at the Dakota Creek Industries shipyard in Anacortes, Washington. “For the United States of America, I christen thee ‘Sally Ride.’ May God bless this ship and all who sail in her,” bellowed Dr. Tam O’Shaughnessy, Ride’s life partner of 27 years and the CEO and co-founder of Sally Ride Science, before smashing the traditional bottle of champagne against the ship’s bow. The auxiliary general oceanographic research vessel then gave a mighty blow of its horn as applause filled the air.
“For decades to come, the men and women who will man this ship will look past the horizon, beyond man-made boundaries, searching, learning and honoring the pioneer [it] is named after—the great Sally Ride,” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said in a statement. “I named the R/V Sally Ride to honor a great researcher, but also to encourage generations of students to continue exploring, discovering and reaching for the stars.”
Ride is the fifth astronaut whose name graces a Navy ship, joining Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, Wally Schirra and Alan Shepard. Much like Ride herself, though, the vessel bearing her name is a trailblazer since it is the first American academic research vessel named for a female scientist and explorer.
Ride’s journey to space began with a simple college newspaper advertisement seeking candidates for NASA’s astronaut training program. Out of thousands of applicants, NASA selected Ride in 1978, the same year she received her doctorate in physics from Stanford University. Ride was one of six women chosen as NASA’s first female astronaut candidates, and a half-million people descended upon the Kennedy Space Center on June 18, 1983, to watch her rocket into orbit aboard the space shuttle Challenger as America’s first female astronaut and the third woman in space, behind Soviet cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. “This was the ultimate glass ceiling and Sally Ride had crashed right through it,” Lynn Sherr, author of a new biography “Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space,” said in an interview with National Public Radio. As a mission specialist on the six-day flight, Ride operated the shuttle’s robotic arm to launch satellites into space. She returned to space the following year aboard the 13th shuttle flight along with astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, who became the first American woman to walk in space. Ride was scheduled for a third mission, but it was canceled in the wake of the 1986 Challenger tragedy.
After serving as one of the investigators into the disaster, Ride left NASA in 1987 for academia. She joined the faculty of the University of California, San Diego as a professor of physics and director of the university’s California Space Institute. Ride championed science education, particularly for girls. She wrote science-related children’s books, and in 2001 she founded educational company Sally Ride Science to encourage girls and young women to participate in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). “She was a scientist first,” one of Ride’s students told Sherr for her book, “a scientist who took a detour through space.” Ride passed away from pancreatic cancer at the age of 61 in 2012.
The U.S. Navy owns R/V Sally Ride, which will be operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which is affiliated with UC San Diego. Scripps is scheduled to take delivery of the ship in April 2015, and its homeport will be at the Scripps Nimitz Marine Facility in Point Loma, California, on San Diego Bay. The seagoing laboratory is capable of global ocean exploration and features modern research instruments, acoustic mapping systems, sensors and profilers that will investigate features from the seafloor to the atmosphere. The ship will enable scientists, students and government researchers to conduct research in physics, chemistry, biology, geology and climate science.
O’Shaughnessy says the ship’s mission embodies Ride’s lifework. “Sally’s passion was for helping young people stay engaged in science, technology, engineering and math and see the careers that await them when they pursue STEM, the exact kinds of careers enjoyed by the researchers who will be on board the R/V Sally Ride.”