Not long after astronaut Sally Ride died of pancreatic cancer in 2012, her life partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, got a call from Ray Mabus, then secretary of the Navy.
Mabus said the Navy wanted to honor Ride, America’s first woman in space, by naming a new research vessel after her. Then he asked O’Shaughnessy if she would serve as the ship’s sponsor, a role usually filled by the wife of the man for whom a Navy ship is named.
“I was just kind of blown away,” O’Shaughnessy recalled in a new short documentary on UCTV’s STEAM Channel. “It was like, wow! ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ really is history! . . . Sally would have loved that moment.”
The program, Honoring Sally: Tam O’Shaughnessy Aboard the R/V Sally Ride, interweaves O’Shaughnessy’s candid interview with vivid archival footage to tell the story of Ride’s historic achievements at NASA and of her long personal and professional partnership with O’Shaughnessy.
The program also explores the synergy between the two women’s work as champions of science education and the research unfolding aboard the state-of-the-art ship, operated by Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.
“What Sally and Tam cared about—protecting the environment, addressing climate change—overlaps perfectly with the research agenda on the R/V Sally Ride,” said Shannon Bradley, producer of Honoring Sally. “What they cared about is happening on that ship.”
Bradley interviewed O’Shaughnessy aboard the R/V Sally Ride during the celebration of the ship’s commissioning in October of 2016.
Honoring Sally traces Ride’s connection to UC San Diego, where she became a physics professor after retiring from NASA. She and O’Shaughnessy wrote science books for children together, and then in 2001, they and three friends founded Sally Ride Science to inspire young people, especially girls, in science and engineering.
Sally Ride Science became part of UC San Diego in 2015. The nonprofit is based at UC San Diego Extension, and its programs are coordinated jointly by Extension, Scripps Oceanography, and the San Diego Supercomputer Center. O’Shaughnessy is executive director of Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego, which presents innovative STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) programs and community events.
Edward Abeyta, associate dean for community engagement and director of pre-collegiate and career preparations programs at UC San Diego Extension, sees a bright future for these programs. “Sally and Tam have made such an imprint at UC San Diego, and now, Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego, coupled with the R/V Sally Ride, is a platform to connect research and science to teachers across the country and inspire the next generation of young minds,” he said.
In tracking down the remarkable photos and video featured in Honoring Sally, Bradley got help from O’Shaughnessy and Ride biographer Lynn Sherr, as well as cooperation from NASA and Scripps. “NASA and Scripps were very generous in giving me access to their incredible film archive of Sally’s career and of the ship,” Bradley said.
For instance, in the run-up to her first shuttle flight in 1983, Ride famously endured sexist questions from the media. Honoring Sally includes a segment from a preflight news conference. The camera stays on Ride’s face as a reporter asks how she responds when things go wrong during training—“Do you weep?”
“Just watching her process that question in real time and seeing the emotions pass in her face—so much of her character came out in that,” Bradley said. “We just had to include it.”
Whatever she was thinking, Ride deflected the question with a laugh. “Why doesn’t anybody ask Rick those questions?” she said, referring to her crewmate Rick Hauck.
In Honoring Sally, O’Shaughnessy recounts joyful moments but also heartbreaking ones, including the shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 and the day in 2011 when Ride was diagnosed with cancer.
O’Shaughnessy concludes by reflecting how perfectly Ride’s legacy is reflected in the ship that bears her name:
“Sally loved science. She loved research. That’s what this vessel is all about—pushing the envelope, trying to learn more and more about the oceans, about how the atmosphere and oceans interact and work together—and she would love that.”