A private American hero

NASA officials always were very careful about which astronauts they chose for specific missions, particularly the "historic first" missions. All else being equal, they wanted to avoid people who enjoyed celebrity too much.

So, in 1961, the first American in space was the laconic Alan Shepard, not the gregarious John Glenn. Eight years later, the first man to step on the moon was the phlegmatic Neil Armstrong, not his overtly ambitious crewmate, Buzz Aldrin. And, in 1983, the first American woman in space was Sally Kristen Ride, at 32 the youngest of the six women in the first astronaut class that included women.

For American popular culture, Sally Ride, who was 61 when she died Monday of pancreatic cancer at her home near San Diego, was a terrible choice. She had that really cool "Mustang Sally" name, but she wouldn’t play along with stupid questions. She spoke like someone with a Ph.D. in physics, which she was, giving flat, technical and precise explanations of her job. She was polite, distant and reserved.

She would say later that she didn’t realize how special her flight was to American women and girls until STS-7 landed in June 1983. She told an interviewer in 2004 that NASA had kept her insulated from the public during training, "but I wasn’t face to face with women until I came back from my flight, and then it hit home pretty hard how important it was to an awful lot of women in the country."

She would fly on the shuttle Challenger again in 1984 and was scheduled for a third flight when the Challenger blew up at launch in 1986, killing seven crew members, two of whom were women. Ms. Ride took part in the exhaustive forensic investigation into the Challenger disaster. With the shuttle program suspended, she left NASA.

Like Neil Armstrong before her, she disappeared into academic and private life, focusing on the mystery of why so many girls lose interest in science and math before they graduate from high school. She wrote books, but they were science books for kids, not memoirs.

She would spurn endorsement deals but used her name to boost a company that operates science academies and camps. She told The Smithsonian that using her fame "has a different feel to it when it has a purpose beyond making yourself famous."

That perfectly reasonable attitude seems odd in today’s culture, where men and women with a fraction of Sally Ride’s credentials celebrate themselves relentlessly. She could have made millions, but she preferred privacy and dignity, even to the last months of her life.

She had kept her illness secret, and only in her obituary was it disclosed that Tam O’Shaughnessy, her longtime friend and business partner, also had been her life partner for 27 years. The sleazoid media went nuts. At last Sally Ride had given them something they could understand.