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My Interview with Sally Ride

Sally Astronaut

Novelist Margaret McMullan recalls the question she wishes she hadn't asked the first American woman in space, Sally Ride, who died July 23 this year.

On a Friday night in August 1983 I excused myself from the dinner table at the Beau Rivage Hotel in Biloxi, Mississippi, to place a long distance call.

“Is this Sally Ride?”

“Is this Margaret?”

They never said my name. They usually said, Is this Glamour? I was the associate entertainment editor, and the magazine for which I wrote had a lot more meaning to celebrities than my name. 

I congratulated Dr. Ride on becoming the first American woman in space. Previously, I caught heat from my editor for not covering the June 18 Challenger voyage, so I was making up for my mistake with a three-inch column covering her second space mission in October 1984. I was used to this: ask one pithy question to get one pithy response. That night at the payphone I was armed with the one question my editor most wanted me to ask Sally Ride.

“I apologize, but I have to ask you a difficult question.” I thought I heard her sigh. “What do you do when you get your period in space?”

“I’m hanging up now.” But she stayed on. I could hear her breathing.

Alice Walker hung up on me because she said she had better things to do. I watched Deborah Harry’s beautiful, pale profile as she yelled at her publicist for making her talk to me, a peon. LaToya Jackson reached over my desk and turned off my tape recorder. Bernadette Peters just stopped talking.

“No wait,” I said.  This all happened in a matter of seconds – my question, her response, my reaction to her response. Just then, I began to hate my job.

Recently, when I read her obituary, I cringed when I saw how miserable such questions really made her – questions like Would spaceflight affect her reproductive organs? Would she wear a bra or makeup in space? Questions like mine.

But it was my job to ask. I worked for women I admired -- smart, driven women who were in this business to sell magazines. Mine was a dream job. Already, I had interviewed Mick Jagger, Martina Navratalova, Nora Ephron, and Twyla Tharp. I was doing exactly what I had dreamed of doing: make a living writing. I just wasn’t writing what I wanted to write.

Why couldn’t I have asked Sally Ride about her training and the huge G-forces of a rocket launch? What about her early college years playing tennis at Stanford and her inclinations towards literature? And what of her ideas to better educate young girls in math and science?

Instead I pushed back the ridiculous Tina Turner perm from my face. Outside, the night sky was lit up with stars, and the lights from shrimp boats twinkled on the gulf.

This was the one vacation I took in the four years I worked at Glamour. I had flown down to be with my father and my grandparents in Gulfport, Mississippi, a place where we had vacationed when I was a child.

“What was it like?” I asked, as if Sally was right there with me in that phone booth, watching the shrimp boats, looking at the stars. “When you were up there, what was it like to be so far from home?”

I would write for Glamour two more years before I quit. In that time, I continued to cover entertainment news. The Motion Picture Association came up with a new rating called PG-13; Michael Jackson and other singers “checked their egos at the door” to sing “We Are the World” for Ethiopians who were starving from the drought; and even though Ronald Reagan said there was no such thing as the AIDS virus, Rock Hudson and several of my friends died as a result of it.

After I hung up the phone, I rejoined my father and grandparents. They asked me how the interview went. I read them the quote I was to use for the little thumbnail column: “When you can feel that close to something you’re used to seeing from this great distance, well, it changes a person.” That night, as I danced with my father and then with my grandfather, I marveled all over again at the view Sally Ride described, and wondered about my own direction.

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