The first woman in space may have been a very public advocate of science in education, especially women in the sciences, but she was incredibly quiet about aspects of her personal life. Sally Ride died on July 23 after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer — a battle she kept secret — leaving behind her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy, of whom she was also mum.
A statement from Sally Ride Science, the organization that Ride and O’Shaughnessy worked side-by-side to run, of Ride’s death ends with “In addition to Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years, Sally is survived by her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear; her niece, Caitlin, and nephew, Whitney; her staff of 40 at Sally Ride Science; and many friends and colleagues around the country.” It is reportedly the first recognition of their longtime relationship.
Some details of their relationship have been public, even on the Sally Ride Science website:
“Sally Ride and Tam O’Shaughnessy became friends at the age of 12 when they both played tennis. While their lives took different paths, they stayed in contact over the years. Ride went to Stanford University, earned a B.S., an M.S., and a Ph.D. in physics, and became the first American woman to fly in space; O’Shaughnessy became a professional tennis player and later earned a B.S. and a M.S. in biology from Georgia State University and a Ph.D. in school psychology from the University of California–Riverside. Not only have the two remained good friends but they are also coauthors of several science books for children.”
In an interview with Buzzfeed, Ride’s sister, Bear, called O’Shaughnessy “a member of the family” and that Sally was a very private person.
“People did not know she had pancreatic cancer, that’s going to be a huge shock. For 17 months, nobody knew — and everyone does now. Her memorial fund is going to be in support of pancreatic cancer.”
“The pancreatic cancer community is going to be absolutely thrilled that there’s now this advocate that they didn’t know about. And, I hope the GLBT community feels the same,” Bear Ride, who identifies as gay, told Buzzfeed. “I hope it makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that another one of their heroes was like them.”
Bear said that only Sally’s close friends knew of her romantic relationship with O’Shaughnessy.
Sally Ride was married to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley from 1982 to 1987, meaning that the relationship with O’Shaughnessy began before their divorce.
In a statement, presidential candidate Mitt Romney said of Ride, “Today, America lost one of its greatest pioneers. The first American woman in space, Sally Ride inspired millions of Americans with her determination to break the mold of her time. She was a profile in courage, and while she will be missed, her accomplishments will never be forgotten.”
O’Shaughnessy will receive no federal benefits that she would had the two been able to marry.
Of O’Shaughnessy, the Sally Ride Science website says she “is the COO and executive vice president of Sally Ride Science and a Professor Emerita of School Psychology at San Diego State University. Dr. O’Shaughnessy has been interested in science since she was a little girl. One of her favorite childhood memories is of watching tadpoles in a creek gradually sprout legs, go green, and turn into frogs. She studied biology in college, earning B.S. and M.S. degrees from Georgia State University. While teaching college biology, she became interested in how kids learn and went on to earn her Ph.D. in school psychology from the University of California, Riverside. A former science teacher and award-winning children’s science writer, Dr. O’Shaughnessy has extensive experience cultivating girls’ and boys’ interests in reading, math, and science. She helped found Sally Ride Science because of her long-standing commitment to science education and her recognition of the importance of supporting girls’ interests in science. She finds her work with Sally Ride Science irresistible. As the executive vice president for content, Dr. O’Shaughnessy is responsible for all publications and professional development at Sally Ride Science. She oversees the development of Sally Ride Science’s classroom books, teacher guides, and educator institutes. In addition, Dr. O’Shaughnessy is the author of nine science books for children, including “Our Changing Climate: Ecosystems” and “The Third Planet” (co-authored with Sally Ride), which won the American Institute of Physics Children’s Science Writing Award.”