I distinctly remember watching the very first space shuttle blast off on April 12, 1981. I was 8 years old, and I watched it while eating breakfast before school. Awe-inspiring, everyone talked about it for days. I recall watching the astronauts board the shuttle that morning and wondering, “Where are the women astronauts?”
Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait too long to see a woman join the flight crew. In 1983, Astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, aboard the STS-7 mission of the Challenger. June 18 marks the anniversary of that historic event that proved there was no glass ceiling in space.
That day, for the first time, girls like me got to see a woman in a so-called “man’s job.” Ride was in astronaut gear, walking alongside the others, fully participating in the mission. I remember seeing photos of her in the cabin, floating hair and clipboard. Clearly she was there to do work, not be the “token” female. In her blue shuttle jumpsuit with all the patches and insignia, she looked calm, cool and very much in her element.
Ride earned multiple degrees in physics. In the late 1970’s, when NASA conducted a nationwide search for new astronauts, Ride was one of only six women chosen for the training program. Today, her mission is to promote science and math education to upper-elementary and middle school girls (not to mention being a professor of physics and running the California Space Institute at the University of California at San Diego).
Last month, I streamed the launch of one of the final space shuttle missions for my class of second graders. Only one had ever seen a launch before. The others only faintly knew about the space shuttle program. The video launched a thousand questions, and I was happy to see the girls were just as curious and interested as the boys. The girls in my classroom are also interested in bugs, states of matter, animals and basically any science studies we engage in together.
All the talk about getting girls interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) careers is a good thing. But in some ways the issue is not about getting girls interested in STEM careers—they already are. What we need to do is help give them the confidence and boldness to see their own potential and to stand tall against outside perceptions and forces that portray women in the science fields as “uncool” or “nerds.”
We can do that in part by recognizing women in STEM fields for their contributions to society—women like Sally Ride, who broke so many barriers by being smart, driven and ambitious. And she made it all seem very cool.
Barlow is an elementary school teacher in Connecticut.