Sending a shuttle to break the ultimate glass ceiling

It’s hard to know what will capture a child’s imagination.

For my son this past Christmas, it was the Space Shuttle.

Elias is six – almost seven, he’d be quick to remind you. And this year he became fascinated with the Space Shuttle despite the fact that the program ended with the last shuttle landing on July 21, 2011.

Too young to remember the Challenger and Columbia disasters, the notion of flying to space and coming home was enough to spark a real interest. That, and perhaps the space suits.

I was 12 years old in 1983 when Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman to travel into space. She wasn’t the first woman, a hurdle that was cleared years earlier by a Soviet cosmonaut. But she was the first American.

Ride died earlier this week from cancer, leaving behind a heroic legacy that spanned her own trips into space and her efforts afterwards to strengthen NASA and open science and math education to girls.

When I was a kid a Space Shuttle launch was still a big deal, and we paid attention. All that was heightened with when Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher from Concord, N.H., was chosen to fly on the Challenger in 1986.

I was in high school in 1986 when the Challenger broke apart just over a minute after launch. I don’t remember for certain if I saw it live or saw the recorded destruction later. But it made a lasting impression on me and countless other students.

It brought home the fact that space travel – which had become almost routine – was still dangerous, the final frontier for exploration and the ultimate test of technology and bravery.

And the fact that a teacher, someone not unlike some of the folks who taught me math and science everyday, was among the crew that had died in the accident made sure that students around the country took notice.

And in February 2003, I was ice fishing Downeast when we heard over the radio in the shack that Columbia had been destroyed during re-entry.

Ride was part of the commissions that investigated both tragedies and pulled no punches, doing her part to make sure the truth came out.

In the report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, she said that she heard the “echoes” of Challenger during the investigation of the Columbia accident because it was clear that the accident resulted from NASA’s “failure of foresight.”

While it’s my son who was first bitten by the space bug, Ride’s accomplishments mean more to my daughter.

At 8, her favorite subjects in school are math and science. Artistic and a great reader, numbers have caught her fancy. How that plays out, only time will tell.

But women like Sally Ride helped to break down barriers that will never be rebuilt.

And while she might not have influenced my daughter directly, I believe she had an impact on the women who are her teachers and who provide the encouragement and tutelage for her to excel at math, at science and in other pursuits that were once solely the domain of men.

Even today, there are still places that remain closed to women.

The United States has never elected a woman president, nor Maine a woman governor. But it’s only a matter of time on both, and women like Eleanor Roosevelt, Geraldine Ferraro, Hillary Clinton and Libby Mitchell have helped to push the bar forward.

Perhaps the break through there will come in 2014 or 2016, not so far down the road.

As the father of a young girl, I am grateful for the smart and courageous women who have changed the world and opened up new possibilities.

Sally Ride is survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy; her mother; her sister, a niece and a nephew.