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Sally Ride

Jul 29, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

In our space-friendly county, her accomplishments are appreciated

Fremont County always has had a soft spot in its collective heart for astronauts and space travel, and it's been more than just hero worship from afar.

In the early 1960s, Riverton organized and hosted a statewide "space day," when teachers, students, enthusiasts, scientists, technicians, pilots and an astronaut or two came to the Fremont County Fairgrounds for talks and demonstrations.

The Lander One Shot Antelope Hunt has welcomed numerous astronauts to the annual event in September. Wally Schirra, one of the legendary "Mercury Seven" astronauts, came to Lander for the hunt and returned to the area several times in other seasons. Jim Lovell of Apollo 13 fame also hunted at the One Shot.

More recently, Riverton watched with an extra dose of pride as former city councilman Ernie Acton's brother, Loren Acton, flew a mission aboard space shuttle Challenger. He's been to Riverton a couple of times for public presentations.

And, tragically, after the space shuttle Columbia disaster of 2003, Lander recalled with particular sorrow the time spent in and around the county seat by Columbia crew members as part of their team-buidling and physical training in cooperation with the National Outdoor Leadership School.

This is a space-friendly part of America, which brings Sally Ride to mind.

She was one of the last famous astronauts, maybe even the very last one, a space traveler who transcended the confines of the lab and the shuttle to become a world celebrity, the way earlier astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions did.

Sally Ride, a physicist, was the first American woman in space. She flew when the shuttle program was still new, and when the greatest glories of U.S. space travel were still relatively fresh in the public mind.

The shuttle fanned the excitement again, with Sally Ride -- what a great name for an astronaut -- playing a big part in it. Abundantly qualified and expertly trained, she actually flew two shuttle missions, both on Challenger, and became proficient in the use of the spacecraft's robotic arm, which she helped develop.

A few years later, when Challenger exploded in front of a horrified nation shortly after liftoff, Ride was asked to fill a seat on the commission investigating the accident. She was still an astronaut then, but she left NASA not long after and entered academia, becoming a top scientific researcher and college professor.

Much later, when the Columbia catastrophe sent a new shock wave through the nation, everyone took a measure of comfort when the investigative panel charged with scrutinizing that tragedy was announced. There, back in the public eye, was the familiar face of Sally Ride.

Her great brain and well-honed body weren't enough to bring about a successful completion of her last mission. She died of cancer a few days ago, too young at 61.

Like Magellan and Columbus, Shackleton and Byrd, Shepard and Glenn, Armstrong and Aldrin, Sally Ride is irremovable from a place in the most revered annals of the exploratory human spirit. She always will be "the first."

An even greater legacy could be an outgrowth of the milestone she owns, that being how quickly it was put behind her, NASA and the nation. Today, if there still were a manned American space program, the notion of a woman on a flight crew wouldn't even merit a blip of hesitation. Of course women are flying in space. We would think nothing special of it at all. Add that to the nation's many reasons to thank Sally Ride and remember her with reverence.

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