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Sally Ride: Why aren't there any openly gay astronauts? (+video)

Most people didn't know that the first American woman in space, astronaut Sally Ride, was a lesbian until her obituaries were published on Monday. Is being openly gay a career-wrecker for astronauts?

By Natalie WolchoverSpace.com / July 25, 2012

Floating freely on the flight deck, Sally Ride communicates with ground controllers in Houston during her STS-7 mission in June 1983.

NASA

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Three hundred and thirty American men and women have served as astronauts since the start of NASA's human spaceflight program. Only one is publicly known to have been gay or bisexual — Sally Ride — and she kept it private until her death, Monday, when her obituary on the Sally Ride Science organization's website stated that Ride was survived by Tam O'Shaughnessy, her "partner of 27 years."

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Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut in space, died at the age of 61 of cancer in her home in California. Seth Doane takes a look back at her remarkable life and legacy.

As the first American woman in space and a scientist, Ride served as a role model for generations of young girls. Now, she'll serve as a role model for LGBT youth as well, said her sister, Bear Ride. "I hope it makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that another one of their heroes was like them," Bear Ride, who identifies as gay, told Buzzfeed yesterday.

Gay rights advocates say Sally Ride's addition to the ranks of LGBT role models will make a tremendous impact. "Role models are incredibly valuable for everyone, but I think especially for LGBT youth, who may be born into a family where they don't have an LGBT role model. It is so important for them to look out into the world and see they could be welcome in that world," Stuart Gaffney, media director at Marriage Equality USA, told SPACE.com. "Sally Ride will be that for them now."

Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin concurred, telling Buzzfeed, "The fact that Sally Ride was a lesbian will further help round out Americans' understanding of the contributions of LGBT Americans to our country." [Astronaut Sally Ride: In Her Own Words]

Ride's decision to keep her sexual orientation private reflects her very private nature, sources said. But the lack of even one openly gay or lesbian astronaut in the history of American spaceflight may reflect the culture at the NASA astronaut office. Although NASA does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, Michael Cassutt, author of five books and hundreds of articles about human spaceflight, said coming out would until recently have been "a career-wrecker" for an astronaut. "Not for any formal reason, but in the same way that any medical issue or even some kind of notoriety has been an astronaut career-wrecker," Cassutt told SPACE.com.

"Any issue that detracts from the mission is or has been the kind of thing an astronaut wants to avoid. It isn't NASA politics; it is NASA politics as practiced at the astronaut office," Cassutt said, adding that the office has often resembled a "military squadron."

A NASA spokesman told SPACE.com that astronauts decide for themselves what to reveal about their private lives.

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