Planetary Sciences News

Postal Service Honors First American Woman in Space

New postage stamp features space shuttle astronaut Sally Ride, a role model for girls, women, and diversity in science. It puts “a stamp” on Ride’s accomplishments, her widow told Eos.


Nearly 35 years after space shuttle Challenger mission STS-7 launched on 18 June 1983 with astronaut Sally Ride as a mission specialist, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is honoring her, America’s first woman in space, with a Forever stamp that is being launched today. The first-day-of-issue dedication ceremony for the stamp will take place this afternoon at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), where Ride served as a physics professor after retiring from NASA.

The stamp, featuring a beaming portrait of Ride next to a portrayal of the liftoff of Challenger, would have “put a big smile on her face,” said Tam O’Shaughnessy, Ride’s widow and the executive director of Sally Ride Science at UCSD. O’Shaughnessy and several other colleagues cofounded the organization with Ride to motivate students, particularly girls and minorities, to stick with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. Ride, who would have turned 67 on Saturday, just a few days after the stamp’s release, died of pancreatic cancer in 2012.

“Because she loved stamps and collected them, I just think that would be fun for her,” being featured on a stamp, O’Shaughnessy told Eos. She said that Ride began collecting stamps at age nine and particularly liked collecting sports and space stamps. “But at a deeper level, I just think she would be very proud of how she’s lived her life and what she’s accomplished. And I think the stamp would kind of put a stamp on that.”

Selecting Who Gets Featured on Stamps

Bill Gicker, manager and creative director of stamp development at USPS, said the postal service receives about 40,000 suggestions for stamps every year. “What we’re looking to do is represent the best of the United States,” he told Eos. He said that Ride was “a natural” for a stamp. “She is one of our national assets.”

Astronaut Sally Ride aboard the Challenger space shuttle
Sally Ride floats in the space shuttle Challenger flight deck during the shuttle’s STS-7 mission in 1983. Credit: NASA

Gicker said that space topics “always are very popular” stamps with the American public. “But to be able to be doing the first female astronaut, that was pretty exciting.”

Criteria for determining the eligibility of subjects on U.S. stamps state that “the Postal Service will honor extraordinary and enduring contributions to American society, history, culture or environment.” Ride contributed to all four areas, said O’Shaughnessy. “Certainly history. Certainly our culture and showing that girls and women can do anything they want to do; and society, because they’re kind of related,” she said. Regarding the environment, O’Shaughnessy said that many of the books that Ride and she coauthored “are focused on Earth and protecting the Earth and taking climate change seriously, as 99.9% of scientists around the world do.”

Sally Ride’s Legacy

Another big fan of Ride is Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman in space and newly named vice-chair of the U.S. National Science Board, who retires this week as director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. “I admired Sally for her intellect that she applied as a scientist, her focus and passion for STEM education, and her astounding competence in so many areas, including her critical contributions to NASA and the nation,” Ochoa told Eos. She will participate with O’Shaughnessy and others in the first-day-of-issue stamp dedication ceremony at UCSD and at a women in leadership event at the university this evening.

“As much in demand as she was, she always made time to meet with young women who dreamed of becoming astronauts,” Ochoa said. “I am thrilled to be part of the Sally Ride Forever stamp dedication, continuing her legacy of inspiring people across the country, and indeed around the world.”

Drama in the Stamp

Paul Salmon, an award-winning illustrator who painted the images of Ride and the space shuttle that appear on the stamp, was a NASA artist in the 1980s and observed the landing of one of the shuttles on which Ride flew. The landing “was very exciting, and I remember feeling an extremely patriotic feeling. It almost brought me to tears,” Salmon recollected to Eos.

Salmon, working with USPS stamp designer Ethel Kessler, started the stamp project by making a series of small black and white charcoal sketches that he drew from a NASA photo of Ride with the entire STS-7 shuttle mission crew. Those sketches then progressed into a comprehensive color design before being digitized and further refined. “I was trying to get drama into it. I was trying to get light and shade,” he said of the stamp. “I wanted the drama of the liftoff and just the idea of this brave woman putting her life on the line.”

Squeezing Art into a Postage Stamp

All of that drama needed to squeeze into the size of a postage stamp, Gicker noted. “It’s a very small space, and we have a lot to convey. That’s why in this instance it was important to us to both have the image of Sally and the shuttle flight so that people immediately make the connection between the two and it starts to tell the story.”

“Of course, we can’t tell long, involved stories on stamps,” he added. “But we hope that it’s sort of the tip of the spear [and] that people will wonder about it and look up the information and find out more.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2018), Postal service honors first American woman in space, Eos, 99, Published on 23 May 2018.
Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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