Smithsonian Curator Chronicles Remarkable Life of Sally Ride

The collection highlights the achievements of the first American woman in space.

This article by Mary Ann Kurker is in the current issue of TCU Magazine.

Sally Ride asked her parents for a telescope when she was a girl. Gazing up at the heavens from her front yard in California, she likely missed the spot on the moon that is named for her today.

As America’s first woman in space — and its youngest flying astronaut — Ride captivated the nation and rocketed to instant icon.

Millions of people have seen Ride’s childhood telescope and other glimpses of her life in an exhibit curated by Valerie Neal ’71 for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Photo of Valerie Neal

Valerie Neal ’71, curator and chair of the Space History Department at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, talks about an exhibit dedicated to physicist and astronaut Sally Ride. In 1983 Ride became the first American woman in space. (Photo by Lisa Helfert)

“We didn’t want to collect only astronaut items, so that’s why we were delighted when we found some things from her childhood. We could show the roots of who she became,” said Neal, who chairs the museum’s Space History Department.

In 2013, Neal got a call from Ride’s partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy. She was grieving the astronaut, and O’Shaughnessy hoped to secure Ride’s legacy.

“I told Valerie that I wanted to give the National Air and Space Museum many of Sally’s possessions so they would be preserved for all time,” O’Shaughnessy said. Her goal was to celebrate the rich layers of Ride’s life: space pioneer, physicist, nationally ranked athlete, university professor, children’s science author and champion for better STEM education.

“Valerie immediately understood and loved the idea of capturing the full arc of Sally’s interests and accomplishments,” O’Shaughnessy said.

Curating the Collection

For four days, Neal pored over Ride’s possessions at the couple’s home in La Jolla, California, with museum archivist Patti Williams and fellow curator Margaret Weitekamp.

“Sally was a saver,” O’Shaughnessy said, and kept everything from her grade-school report cards to the vision she authored for NASA on America’s future in space. Ride also saved her notes on the Challenger and Columbia tragedies that killed her friends (she was the only person to serve on both presidential panels investigating the shuttle incidents).

“She kind of curated her own life,” Neal said. The curators returned to Washington with 182 artifacts and more than 23 cubic feet of historic papers, and the museum launched the Sally K. Ride Collection in July 2016.

Read more in TCU Magazine.