Why Sally Ride Is a Hero

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Astronaut Sally Ride is a hero.

We talk a lot about what a hero is, and in our culture, it's easy to get confused. Movie stars and elite sports athletes are often considered role models, or heroes, because they are in the spotlight. They are celebrities; being a hero is not exclusive, but it is different.

For many young women, it's natural to watch a beautiful actress, model or gifted athlete and want to emulate them. However, too often, it's the celebrity lifestyle that's promoted and desired, not the hard work and dedication that results in a fulfilling career. The message gets muddled, and models with anorexia and actresses struggling with drug problems become heroes.

Here's the distinction: A celebrity is someone is popular because she has brought attention to herself, regardless of the reason. A hero is celebrated for the good she has done.

And so, astronaut Sally Ride is a hero.

Ride died yesterday from cancer at the young age of 61. She is a hero not because she was the first U.S. woman in space, but because she used her fame -- her celebrity – to make a positive difference in our world. She devoted her time and energy in her after-NASA life to educating and inspiring children about science. Many of today's women in technology were inspired by her example.

Growing up in the 50s in California, Ride was one of those kids who just "took" to science naturally. (And tennis, too.) In addition to an English degree, she earned a bachelor's in physics from Stanford University, as well as a master's. Despite her own scientific nature, she recognized that some kids need more nurture when nature doesn't find science enthralling.

Her 1978 NASA class was the first to include women. She soared into the history on June 18, 1983, when she was part of Challenger's crew. In 1987, she left the space agency to begin her teaching career, at the University of California, San Diego, as a professor of physics and director of UC’s California Space Institute. In 2001, she started Sally Ride Science, with the intent of motivating children – but particularly girls and young women -- to pursue careers in science, math and technology. Her work will transcend her gender: She will be not a "women's hero," but, rather, a figure that is admired by all.

"While she never enjoyed being a celebrity, she recognized that it gave her the opportunity to encourage children, particularly young girls, to reach their full potential," said former NASA Astronaut Steve Hawley, and Ride's ex-husband, in a statement. "Sally Ride, the astronaut and the person, allowed many young girls across the world to believe they could achieve anything if they studied and worked hard. I think she would be pleased with that legacy."

I would be.

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