Sally Ride: A Feminist Hero and the First American Woman in Space

Over 36 years ago, Dr. Sally Ride became America’s first woman in space. She simply answered a newspaper article with a handwritten note to NASA. She was ultimately accepted by NASA and became a figurehead in improving science education all over America, even years after her death. She joined NASA just as they were starting to allow more women around. However, the world wasn’t ready to be as progressive when it came to women physicists.

Sally Ride with her NASA uniform on in 1983.
Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, told Business Insider about the sexism Sally had to deal with, including questioning from the media. However, she wasn’t going to let anything stop her; Ride’s motto was “stereotypes be damned.” Even though she didn’t necessarily enjoy public attention, Sally was determined to use her platform to help and educate others. Unfortunately, she died of cancer in 2012, before she publically announced that she was in a relationship with a woman. Her partner of 27 years revealed the truth after her death.

A Coincidence?

Being an astronaut was never really something Sally Ride ever thought about until she stumbled on an article in the Stanford student newspaper. It said that NASA was looking to recruit women, so Sally decided to call and ask for an application to join its space program in the 1970s. At the time, NASA had never hired a female astronaut, and Sally wanted to give it a shot.

The first class of female astronauts after completing training in 1979: Shannon Lucid, Margaret Rhea Seddon, Kathryn, Sullivan, Judith Resnik, Anna Fisher, and Sally Ride.
Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

She was finishing up her Ph.D. and wanted to put herself out there. Her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, told Business Insider, “She was eating breakfast in the cafeteria at Stanford, and she had one of those ‘aha’ moments. It was like: ‘Oh my God, I want to try to do that.’ So she sent in her letter to NASA.

Or Destiny?

It may seem like a lucky coincidence, but it was more than that for Ride. It was her destiny. In a handwritten note, the Ph.D. student wrote that she was “interested in the space shuttle program” and asked NASA to “Please send me the forms necessary to apply as a space ‘mission specialist’ candidate.’”

Sally Ride is photographed here at Ellington Air Force Base in Texas in 1982.
Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

This letter was the first step in Sally Ride becoming the first American woman and the second woman in history to go to outer space. She answered an ad, was selected by NASA, and her first legendary journey to space started on June 18th, 1983, over 36 years ago. With her two trips to space, Sally became an essential figure in improving science, even years after her death.

One of a Kind

We know that Dr. Sally Ride was the first American woman in space, but at age 32, she was also the youngest. She ultimately became the only person to sit on both panels while investigating the disastrous shuttle accidents that killed everybody on board (the Challenger explosion in 1986 and the Columbia crash in 2003).

Salle Ride in a sleep restraint device on the space shuttle Challenger during the Sts-7 mission in 1983.
Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

When she noticed the ad, Sally already had degrees in physics, astrophysics, and English. Since she was focusing on finishing up her Ph.D., we know this girl wasn’t messing around. In 1982, she told New York Times that when she looked at the qualifications, she said, “I’m one of those people.” She certainly wasn’t somebody who was going to let an opportunity pass her by.

More than just an Astronaut

Tam O’Shaughnessy explained, “I think that many people still only think of her as an astronaut. But they don’t appreciate how much she did behind the scenes to affect space policy, science education policy.” Ride went to space as a mission specialist with NASA in 1983. It was their second mission involving the Space Shuttle Challenger, and they returned in 1984.

Robert Crippen, Frederick Hauck, John Fabian, and Sally Ride in the space shuttle simulator training in 1983.
Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

According to her biography by Lynn Sherr, “Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space,” Sally was told that she was selected to go to space before the other four men in the crew found out. This was a strange move, especially for the time. However, the head of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center asked her to come to his office and “talked with me about the implications of being the first woman.”

It Comes With Fame

Sally explained, “He reminded me that I would get a lot of press and attention and asked if I was ready for that. His message was just, ‘let us know when you need help; we’re here to support you in any way and can offer whatever help you need.’”

Dr. Sally Ride, Commander Bob Crippen, Pilot Frederick Hauck, John Fabian, and Norm Thagard posing as the crew of STS-7 Space Shuttle Challenger.
Source: Shutterstock

For years before flying, Ride controlled the space shuttle’s robotic arm and gave recommendations on how to improve the device in the future, and Sally was set to go to space again. Unfortunately, that all changed in 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger broke, killing the entire crew. Sally knew many of the astronauts, and the disaster is considered one of the biggest tragedies in space exploration.

Making Real Changes

Sally first heard about the devastating accident when she was on a commercial airplane. As soon as she landed, she headed straight to the space center in disbelief. She was soon appointed to the presidential commission investigating the tragic accident.

Exhaust and smoke from the Space Shuttle Challenger accident on January 28th, 1986.
Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

In 1978, when Ride was told that she was chosen as a candidate for a space flight, she thought she was “dreaming.” She was even worried about waking up her friends and family to tell them. It was obviously a huge step for Sally as well as NASA. This decision led to changes, including a women’s locker room. She said six women started working there and “suddenly they doubled the number of technical women” at the Johnson Space Center.

Number One Woman at NASA

Women at NASA were uncommon at the time. She said that the newer male astronauts were more used to the idea than the older class. O’Shaughnessy said NASA’s decision to send Sally to space “had a major impact on her life.” But these progressive changes ultimately attracted international media attention.

Sally Ride standing outside the shuttle mission simulator at the Johnson Space Center in 1983 wearing her uniform.
Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

In a 2002 interview for the Johnson Space Center, Ride said that “It was easy to tell though that the males in our group were really pretty comfortable with us, while the astronauts who’d been around for a while were not all as comfortable and didn’t quite know how to react.” She continued, “NASA held a huge press conference, and press from around the world came for it.”

But You’re a Girl…

When it was announced that Ride was going to space, NASA had already made a commitment to admit women. Still, the backlash and sexist questioning was ridiculous. This is a girl who studied physics at Stanford, a department that was once a “boys club.” However, this was a whole new level. People went as far as to ask her how she would deal with her menstrual cycle in space.

Sally Ride photographed on the space shuttle Challenger in June 1983.
Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Diane Sawyer once asked her to demonstrate a privacy curtain that was newly installed around the shuttle’s toilet. Johnny Carson joked on The Today Show that the shuttle flight would be delayed because Dr. Ride needed to find a purse to match her shoes. Ride has said, “It’s too bad this is such a big deal. It’s too bad, our society isn’t further along.”

Do You Wear a Bra in Space?

Ride said that she struggled with this sudden attention as she “was kind of an introvert.” On top of that, she had to deal with sexism and being questioned by the media as soon as she was selected. In 1983, she reported to PBS that someone even asked her if the trip would affect her reproductive organs.

Sally Ride is behind the control panels in 1983.
Photo by Media Press / Shutterstock

O’Shaughnessy explained to Business Insider, “Some of the questions she was asked were just unbelievable. It’s like when you’re under pressure, do you cry? Are you going to wear a bra in space?” Obviously, it was difficult for people to understand that women are just as capable as men of being in space. Thankfully, it’s 2020, and the word is starting to see past it!

A Female Pioneer

O’Shaughnessy said that “Sally never planned ahead. She never planned to become an astronaut. She never thought more than a few years ahead for what she was doing. She really followed her heart.” Even without planning, Sally still managed to become an inspirational pioneer in many parts of life, aside from just her trip to space.

Sally Ride in her uniform in 1983.
Photo by Skyline Features / Shutterstock

O’Shaughnessy told Business Insider, “Sally’s legacy is really becoming a physicist at the time, and even today in the United States, there’s only like, 20% of physicists are female.” She continued to explain, “I think Sally, from the time she was a kid, she always wanted to be somebody and do something important.

Girl Power

Like many other accomplished people, Ride had other passions. She actually loved to play tennis and almost played professionally. Her career path could have gone differently, but there is no doubt that she would have empowered women in whichever field she chose. O’Shaughnessy described her as “being a young girl and an athlete at a time when girls were not supposed to be athletes.”

Sally Ride on board the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983.
Source: Shutterstock

Ride naturally rebelled against the ideas of what she was supposed to do. “It’s like: ‘I’m going to do what I want to do. I love sports; I’m going to play tennis. I love science; I’m going to be a physic. The stereotypes be damned’,” O’Shaughnessy said. That’s how we should all live our lives.

Sally Ride Science

Sally Ride always wanted to make sure that younger people, especially young women, would have similar opportunities. That’s why, in 2001, she and O’Shaughnessy founded a nonprofit group called Sally Ride Science. The organization trains teachers, produces books, holds workshops in schools, and, most importantly, advocates for better science education policies.

Sally Ride, the STS-7 mission specialist, on the flight deck of the space shuttle Challenger in 1983.
Source: Shutterstock

O’Shaughnessy said that Ride’s time in space inspired her to think about how fragile our planet is, and she wanted to relay that message to others. “Floating weightless in the shuttle and looking back at the earth just made her even more aware of the environment and made her more passionate about taking care of our planet.”

Sudden Fame

Although Ride was already struggling with public attention, she made a decision to publically fight for science education. O’Shaughnessy said. “Once she became famous, she actually didn’t like it,” and described her as the type of person who liked to “get things done.” O’Shaughnessy went on to say that she went to a psychologist who reminded her to make sure to take some “private moments” away from the spotlight.

Sally Ride monitoring control panels from the pilot's chair on the flight deck of the Space Shuttle Challenger on June 25th, 1983.
Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

However, this wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Ride was suddenly getting recognized everywhere she went, like a celebrity. “She was giving a lot of speeches and giving interviews and TV and for magazines, and she realized that she was struggling.”

Using Her Powers for Good

But Sally Ride knew that she had a platform that could help encourage people to embrace science. She definitely intended to use it. O’Shaughnessy said, “After her first flight, because she just became, overnight, very, very, famous. She started giving speeches for NASA around the country, and she just really noticed how adults and kids are just fascinated by space.”

Sally Ride having a meal on board the space shuttle Challenger during the STS-41-G mission in 1984.
Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

She didn’t want children to lose interest or give up on science. Her goal was to motivate kids to keep that passion, “so that more United States and world citizens are literate in science and technology, and at least have the option of careers in those fields.” She really helped inspire young students all around the world.

“Imaginary Lines”

Ride didn’t originally want to name the organization Sally Ride Science. She deliberately wanted to call it “Imaginary Lines.” However, an investor encouraged her to change it because of all the fame and attention surrounding Sally. Sally Ride Science is still currently operating under O’Shaughnessy, who says, “The name has magic, even today. People answer the phone when they hear Sally Ride Science. Because of her.”

Sally Ride attending the Rogers Commission on the Space Shuttle accident in 1986.
Photo by Mark Reinstein / Shutterstock

Ride definitely preferred a private life, but despite her reluctance in receiving attention, she increasingly made her life public. What she did manage to protect was her relationship with O’Shaughnessy. Friends and family knew they were a couple, but the rest of the world believed that they were just close friends.

Coming Out

After 27 years together, the pair discussed making their relationship public. Unfortunately, about a week later, in 2012, Ride died of cancer. Apparently, Ride was getting “very worried about NASA and protecting the Astronaut Corps,” but she ultimately wanted O’Shaughnessy to decide how to present their relationship when celebrating Sally’s life. Coming out of the closet for somebody else must have been difficult.

Sally Ride on Sesame Street posing with a muppet.
Source: Pinterest

Can you imagine hiding your relationship from the world for your entire life? The information was finally revealed by O’Shaughnessy herself in a tribute to Ride on the Sally Ride Science website. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded Sally Ride with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and O’Shaughnessy collected it on her behalf.

Awards and Recognition

O’Shaughnessy explained, “He recognized that the Presidential Medal of Freedom had never been given to a same-sex partner of somebody who had passed away. He just thought that was important.” It is important, and Sally was a huge influence on women’s empowerment. She proved how capable she was as America’s first female astronaut.

Dr. Tenley Albright presenting the Golden Plate Award to Dr. Sally K. Ride in 2004.

In addition to her numerous science and public service awards, Ride was also inducted in the Astronaut Hall of Fame as well as the Women’s Hall of Fame. NASA described her as an “American treasure,” and Obama said she is “a national hero and a powerful role model.” She definitely is. She helped shape the way women are viewed, leading to more opportunities for women today.

A Powerful Legacy

O’Shaughnessy said her record-breaking legacy was the combination between her passion for science and her “fighting for decades to improve science education out country.” She went on to say, “Those are thing things she cared about. She made a difference in each area. She really was, in my mind, a natural and true leader, in the best sense of the world.”

Sally Ride and her sister, Bear, when she became a minister.

She helped encourage children and motivate women to accomplish whatever they want. By breaking the stereotypes, she really helped shape the way the world viewed women, especially in the workplace. Thanks to Sally and her media attention, many other organizations, specifically space programs, became more inclusive of women.

Journalist: Lynn Sherr

When Sally Ride died in 2012, it came as a shock to the world. She managed to keep her pancreatic cancer a secret until it took her life at age 61. But that wasn’t the only secret she kept. As we mentioned, Sally Ride had a partner named Tam O’Shaughnessy, and despite spending almost three decades together, Sally kept her relationship out of the public eye.

Sally Ride and Tam O’Shaughnessy with their dog Gypsy in 1992.
Source: Pinterest

Sally’s good friend, Lynn Sherr, found out both of these things minutes before the rest of the world when Ride’s secretary called her. “It certainly was news to me,” Sherr said. She is a journalist who became close with Ride when she was covering the space program for ABC News. “It saddened me that she felt that she couldn’t share that part of her life with me.”

Lynn Sherr Biography

That’s when Tam O’Shaughnessy asked Lynn Sherr if she would write Ride’s biography. Sherr knew this would be a daunting task considering that most of Ride’s accomplishments were public knowledge, such as her historic 1983 flight aboard the Challenger Space Shuttle. However, this is a woman who was good at keeping secrets, and the journalist was ready to uncover them.

Tam O’Shaughnessy posing with President Barack Obama at the presidential medal of freedom ceremony in 2013.
Photo by NASA / Carla Cioffi / Shutterstock

Sherr says, “I was pretty thorough, but I’m sure at some point something will turn up and—who knows? – maybe I will add a chapter to the book.” Lynn Sherr was able to dig up some information about her friend and revealed it in her biography, Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space.

Tennis Skills Helped her Astronaut Career

Sally Ride was an intelligent and talented woman who didn’t plan on becoming an astronaut. As we mentioned, she loved to play tennis and was passionate about the sport. She almost played professionally, but she chose to pursue physics instead. But it turns out that her knowledge of sports helped her.

Sally Ride at the age of 16, holding a Spalding tennis racket.
Source: Pinterest

Her tennis skills really came in handy when it came to operating the Challenger’s robot arm. According to Lynn Sherr, Ride’s impeccable hand-eye coordination helped her beat out the other applicants vying to be the first American woman in space. She may have been able to operate the robotic arms anyway, but the tennis definitely sharpened her ability.

A Secret Meeting with a Russian Cosmonaut

It’s no secret that Sally Ride made history after her 1983 flight. She quickly gained fame and popularity, and NASA sent her on a European tour. At the time, tensions were high with the Soviet Union, and Ride had strict orders not to be photographed with the Soviets.

Sally Ride photographed in 2004.
Photo by Bei / Shutterstock

However, Lynn Sherr found out that when she ran into Svetlana Savitskaya, a Russian cosmonaut, in Budapest, Hungary, the two women ended up arranging a secret meeting through mutual friends. Sherr said, “she certainly never told the state Department about that. They never found out, but does this really surprise you? Sally Ride is all about women’s empowerment, so this just seems like something she would do.”

Turning Down the Head NASA Job

Sally Ride got a hold of some reports showing how the space shuttle’s O-rings could fail in cold temperatures. The report also stated that NASA management knew about it. She decided to give it to another member of the group who was in charge of investigating the 1986 disaster. Thanks to Ride, the truth came out.

Sally Ride speaking at the Sally Ride Science Festival run for schoolgirls in 2009.
Photo by Tam O’Shaughnessy

President Bill Clinton asked Ride to serve as a NASA Administrator but turned down the position… twice. She later told the Obama administration that she still wasn’t interested. In her biography, Sherr explains, “She really didn’t want to be in the public eye; she didn’t want to deal with the bureaucracy.” I can’t blame her. Her life was publicized enough.

A Spot On The Moon

There is a spot on the moon named after Sally Ride. One of the programs that Ride coordinated was for middle school students to take pictures of the moon from NASA’s two GRAUL spacecraft. When the GRAIL mission was over in 2012, both units crash-landed on the moon. NASA called the spot “Sally K. Ride Impact Site.”

Sally Ride is sitting with some of the books written by her and Tam O’Shaughnessy in 2007.

I wish I can get a spot on the moon named after me. I mean, I didn’t do or accomplish anything to deserve such an honor, but Sally Ride certainly has. If you are impressive enough to the point where NASA literally named a spot on the moon after you, you’ve definitely made it. Ride made history and accomplished more than most people in her 61 years.

Anne McClain

Believe it or not, Sally Ride wasn’t the only LGBTQ+ female astronaut who made it to space. As we mentioned, Sally set the path for many other women to follow, and Anne McClain was one of them. However, since Sally Ride kept her sexuality a secret throughout her career and life, Anne McClain was considered the first official active LGBTQ+ astronaut in outer space.

Anne C. McClain in her suit and headgear ready to board. s

Unfortunately, McClain was dealing with her own share of issues, including a divorce and custody battle. She was going through this difficult time in space, but somehow, her troubles down on earth followed her. She was under an immense amount of pressure, which led her to a decision that could make her the first criminal in space.

Going through a divorce is one of the most emotionally draining and things a person can go through in his or her life. Add children to the equation, and the whole thing gets so much worse. The whole process is isolating, leaving many feeling lonely and at a loss. Now, that’s what happens to regular folk on the ground. Imagine what going through a divorce and custody battle would be like in outer space! Talk about isolating…

Anne McClain with her 4-year-old son
Source: Reddit

The private life of NASA astronaut Anne McClain became public when it was revealed that the one making the claim was actually McClain’s wife. This made McClain the first active astronaut of the LGBTQ+ community. McClain went up into outer space on a mission during a very stressful period in her life. This couple’s domestic troubles on Earth extended into outer space. And on her trip to the International Space Station in 2018, under all the pressure she was under, she made an ill-conceived decision that might end up making her the first-ever space criminal.

This is what happened…

Making it Up to Space

Senior Army Aviator and astronaut Anne McClain, from Spokane, Washington, always dreamed of exploring space ever since she could remember. As a toddler, she would tell her mother that she was destined for the cosmos. Well, it looks like it wasn’t just a childhood dream; McClain made her fantasy come true. In 2013, she was selected out of 6,000 applicants to make it up to space.

NASA astronaut Anne McClain drawing on a board
Source:, Victor Zelentosov / NASA

She was chosen as one of the eight members of the 21st NASA astronaut class. After getting the call, she started the grueling Astronaut Candidate Training at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. For anyone who knows, training for space is a very tough process, and it takes the most dedicated of individuals. And it turns out that McClain is one of those individuals.

Marrying Her Soulmate

Following the theme of self-actualization and living out personal dreams, McClain married her soulmate. She met and fell in love with former Air Force intelligence officer Summer Worden. McClain was on her way to getting everything she ever wanted, but she had her heart set on one more thing.

Summer Worden, left, astronaut Anne McClain
Summer Worden, left, astronaut Anne McClain Source: Linkedin/NASA

Aside from a loving relationship and making it up to space, McClain also wanted to be a mother. Worden was already a single mother before having met McClain and conceived her baby via in-vitro fertilization. The child was carried by a surrogate. After marrying Worden and getting to spend time with her son, McClain grew fond of the little guy and started to become interested in adopting him.

She Wanted to Adopt the Boy

McClain loved her wife’s then 4-year-old son so much that she took the little guy with her to a NASA spacesuit photo shoot (a photo that later went viral). She had known the boy since he was just 1 year old. So for a few years now, she was basically becoming his second mom, and both he and McClain loved their new bonding time.

Anne McClain and her son

The problem was that, even after their wedding in 2014, Worden outright forbid that her wife adopt her son. It sounds pretty harsh, right? They just got married, were in love, and McClain was getting along perfectly with the boy. So why wouldn’t Worden want her wife to be a second legal guardian of her son?

Divorce and Accusations

We don’t know for sure why her wife was adamant not to have her adopt her son. But the chances are, this is the reason their marriage started to crumble after just three years. The relationship became strained. It came to a point where McClain boldly accused Worden of assault. But for some reason, the case was dismissed.

Summer Worden and Anne McClain with Worden’s son.
Summer Worden and Anne McClain with Worden’s son. Source:

McClain even alleged that Worden had an “explosive temper and was making poor financial decisions.” After all these fights and court dates, the couple finally split. Worden, who filed for divorce, denied the accusations, claiming that McClain devised an evil plot to take her child away. McClain practically begged the judge for joint custody of the child during the court proceedings in 2018.

In Space, In Agony

McClain, visibly in agony, told the court how she was present for the boy’s first steps and first words, making a case for herself as to why she should have rights to the child as well. She said they had “a very healthy and deep parental relationship.” But her cries fell on deaf ears, as the courts never scheduled a custody hearing.

McClain on the International Space Station
Source: Twitter

In the midst of all this drama, from December 2018 to June 2019, McClain went forward with her space duties and performed as the International Space Station Flight Engineer for Expedition 58 and 59. The entire expedition lasted for seven months, yet for McClain, it felt like a century. She couldn’t help but feel tormented by the custody battle.

Crumbling Before Her Eyes

While up in outer space, McClain executed a bunch of biology, biotechnology, and physical experiments, as astronauts are meant to do on their missions. She also carried out two protracted spacewalks, which were a part of her training for a future space endeavor, which would be one that would make history. McClain was supposed to be on the very first all-female spacewalk in March 2019, alongside astronaut Christina Koch.

McClain on the International Space Station
Source: Twitter

The brainy pair of astronaut women were chosen to repair batteries on the ISS. But unfortunately, there was a problem with the plan. The walk was later canceled due to NASA’s lack of medium-sized spacesuits. Despite the cancellation, McClain still trained for the mission. McClain felt as though everything she wanted was crumbling before her eyes.

Space Wasn’t Distracting Enough

For many people, the best way to get through a divorce is to distract yourself and stay focused on something. And you would think that being in space would be distracting enough! You would think that being occupied with her spacewalk training, occurring hundreds of miles above the earth, McClain would be distracted. But that simply wasn’t the case.

Summer Worden and Anne McClain
Source: Facebook

McClain couldn’t help but wallow over the nasty details of her divorce and the custody battle. Meanwhile, on earth, her ex-wife Summer Worden who was living in Kansas, was the other half of this battle, and she, too, had been involved in this bitter separation and parenting dispute for the past year. While her ex-wife was up in space, she started noticing something strange.

Meanwhile, On Earth

The last thing Worden expected was for her ex-wife to be snooping into her bank account from none other than outer space! Needless to say, she was surprised. She didn’t expect the woman in space to know about her spending habits, like buying a car and whether or not she could even afford it. The two had been in communication, actually.

Summer Worden holding The Vince Lombardi Trophy
Summer Worden holding The Vince Lombardi Trophy, Source: Facebook

And when the two spoke, she was confused, not to mention suspicious, by how McClain knew so much about her finances while being in another world, literally. Something just didn’t add up. And Worden had a hunch as to what was going on. It doesn’t come as a surprise then that the former intelligence officer figured it out.

She Was Snooping

It comes as no surprise that Worden, who earned graduate degrees in strategic intelligence and digital forensics, was detecting that someone had signed into her personal bank. There were details that stood out to her as curious. So Worden put her intelligence background to work and started doing some due diligence.

Summer Worden with astronaut gloves
Source: Facebook

She asked her bank to find out the locations of the computers that had recently accessed her bank account, giving them her own login credentials. The bank got back to Worden with an answer. It turns out that one of the computers who accessed her account was from a network registered to NASA. And that’s when Worden knew that it was McClain, her estranged ex-wife that has been snooping.

Accused of Identity Theft

After some digging around, further evidence suggested that during the spacewalk training, McClain had tapped into Worden’s bank records. If the claims were indeed true, it would mean that Anne McClain committed the first-ever outer space crime. But in her state of mind, it’s highly unlikely that McClain even thought of that fact. She was just obsessed with her personal situation.

Anne McClain in a NASA facility
Source: YouTube

News got out to NASA, who then approached McClain. A furious McClain then emailed her former lover, saying: “They specifically mentioned threatening emails from orbit, and accessing bank accounts — not sure where that info comes from.” Worden, shocked by what she was reading in her email, wasn’t up for debating anything. She filed a complaint, accusing McClain of identity theft and improper access to her private financial records.

She Just Wanted to Make Sure

McClain later acknowledged that she had accessed Worden’s bank account from space, insisting through her lawyer that she was merely steering the couple’s still-connected finances. To clarify, McClain said she never used or moved any of Worden’s funds. She clearly made it look harmless (and maybe her intentions were!), but Worden felt differently.

Anne McClain in an Astronaut suit

McClain’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, spoke kindly about McClain to media. In an interview with The New York Times, she said McClain looked through the account to make sure that Worden’s son, who McClain helped raise, was properly being cared for. McClain claimed that she was granted permission to do this throughout their relationship. And so she didn’t think it would result in such an outpour that she continued.

The First Wrongdoing in Space?

Investigators from the inspector general’s office contacted Worden and McClain, trying to get to the bottom of the issue, which was not to be taken lightly. It was a serious thing, considering that this allegation could result in the first allegation of criminal wrongdoing in space. “I was pretty appalled that she would go that far. I knew it was not okay,” Worden said.

NASA astronaut Anne McClain, Oleg Kononenko, David Saint-Jacques
NASA astronaut Anne McClain (from left), Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko and David Saint-Jacques of the Canadian Space Agency, Source:

The way it goes is this: there are five space agencies involved in the space station (from the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe, and Canada). These agencies have long-established procedures set in place to handle any jurisdictional questions that come up revolving around astronauts of various nations orbiting Earth together. As it turns out, this particular case is the first of its kind.

Co-Operating on Earth

Mark Sundahl, the director of the Global Space Law Center at Cleveland State University, said that to his knowledge, there has yet to be an allegation of a crime committed in space. NASA officials also said that they were unaware of any crimes committed in the space station. When McClain returned to Earth, she was subjected to a number of interviews.

Mark Sundahl
Source: YouTube

McClain was submitted to an under-oath interview with the inspector general in 2019. She contended that she was simply doing what she had always done, emphasizing that it was with Worden’s permission, to ensure the family’s finances were in order. “She strenuously denies that she did anything improper,” her lawyer said, adding that McClain “is totally co-operating.”

It’s What She’s Always Done

McClain’s lawyer said the bank access to make sure that there was enough money in Worden’s account to pay bills and care for the boy they had both been raising. McClain continued using the password that she previously used. She never heard from Worden that the account was off-limits. According to McClain, the situation had remained the same.

Anne C. McClain

Also, according to McClain, Worden had an explosive temper and was making bad financial decisions, hence her need to check the financial status – even from outer space. McClain’s posts on her Twitter account of her official NASA photos with the young, showing herself in her astronaut suit smiling with Worden’s son, were now deleted. “The hardest part about training for space is the 4-year-old I have to leave behind every time I walk out the door,” she said at the time.

No Outward Signs

The social media attention that McClain was receiving after her Twitter photos went viral only angered Worden further. She didn’t want McClain to claim to be the mother of her child. And that’s when Worden filed for divorce. McClain’s accusations of assault were denied as she said it was just a part of McClain’s bid to get control of the child.

Anne C. McClain after returning to earth
Expedition 59 NASA astronaut Anne McClain (C) is helped out of the Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft just minutes after she landed in Kazakhstan. Source:

Despite the turmoil that McClain felt while up in space, she didn’t portray any outward signs of trouble. Let’s not forget that the Washington native was a leader with a decorated past. She was a West Point graduate who then became a commissioned army officer and flew over 800 combat hours in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

She Was Shocked

All that was before joining NASA in 2013. She remained a lieutenant colonel in the army when she found herself on the list of candidates NASA was considering to be the first woman on the moon. This is clearly a woman who has the drive and wants to be all that she can be. Becoming a criminal is not on her radar. So when Worden accused her of identity theft, she was shocked.

Anne C. McClain and Robert S.
Anne C. McClain and Robert S. “Shane” Kimbrough, Source: Flicker

Worden’s claim was even made even though she saw no sign of any money being moved or used at all. When the sudden switch happened a few days before the spacewalk, and NASA scrapped McCain’s role on the all-female spacewalk, McClain was crushed. They said it was a lack of available suits. But a NASA spokeswoman, Megan Sumner, said the decision was not influenced by any allegations about McClain.

A Little About Worden

Summer Worden is originally from Kansas, where she still lives with her son since her divorce from McClain. Worden had graduated from Canton Galva High School and then went to the University of Texas in San Antonio. She graduated in 1999 with a business degree and a minor in aerospace science. She was in the Air Force ROTC while in college.

Summer Worden and Anne McClain
Source: Facebook

After graduating college, Worden was an intelligence officer in the Air Force from 1999 to 2006. From 2000 to 2012, she was an intelligence operator and financial intelligence analyst, leading her team of analysts in tracking financial data and funds used by terrorists. Worden also worked at the National Security Agency from 2006 to 2008. She now works in real estate.

The Investigation is Still Going On

The Inspector General’s investigation into the accusations made by Worden against McClain is still ongoing. McClain tweeted on August 24, 2019: “There’s unequivocally no truth to these claims. We’ve been going through a painful, personal separation that’s now unfortunately in the media. I appreciate the outpouring of support and will reserve comment until after the investigation. I have total confidence in the IG process.”

Anne McClain on the orbiting laboratory
Source: Instagram

NASA made a statement, mentioning that the agency doesn’t comment on personal or personnel matters. They did, however, say that “Lt Col. Anne McClain has an accomplished military career, flew combat missions in Iraq and is one of NASA’s top astronauts. She did a great job on her most recent NASA mission aboard the International Space Station.”

Outed as an LGBTQ+ Member

Aside from all the drama of the custody battle and the harsh accusations that could potentially make McClain a criminal in outer space, there is the issue that McClain was “outed” as a lesbian as a result of all. We should keep in mind that McClain never purposely came out as a lesbian astronaut. A question has thus been raised as to the future of LGBTQ+ astronauts.

Anne McClain on the international station
Source: Twitter

Regardless of how her identity had been revealed, will this change how astronauts who are members of this community feel and will be treated? Tam O’Shaughnessy co-founded the science education company Sally Ride Science with her life partner, NASA astronaut Sally Ride. O’Shaughnessy spoke to about McClain and the difficulties that astronauts in the community may face.

Oh, Darn

“At first, I have to admit, I was just surprised that McClain was married to a woman, it still is a surprise to me sometimes…Sally would just be amazed that there is at least one female astronaut who’s married to a woman, and it’s OK at NASA,” O’Shaughnessy said. But once O’Shaughnessy realized that McClain didn’t come out publicly herself, her first positive reactions turned slightly sour.

mission specialist Sally Ride
Mission specialist Sally Ride. Source:

“Oh, darn,” she said. O’Shaughnessy didn’t know McClain personally and was disappointed that McClain wasn’t open about her identity. Up until the New York Times reported on the accusations made by McClain’s now-estranged wife, McClain had yet to be “out” in official NASA communications. There were, though, a few LGBTQ+ media outlets that described her as a lesbian.

NASA’s Take On It

According to O’Shaughnessy, “Anne McClain is afraid of being who she really is because she’s afraid that she won’t get the exciting opportunities if people know that she’s in a gay relationship.” NASA made a statement detailing the agency’s policy on diversity and inclusion. According to the statement, “NASA recognizes that diversity and inclusion are integral to mission success at NASA.”

Anne McClain spacewalk
Source: Twitter

“Our commitment to these principles helps us to ensure fairness and equity in decision making. Diversity and inclusion also drives full engagement and the utilization of the talents, backgrounds, and capabilities of individuals and teams, allowing us to create and maintain a work environment where diverse ideas are highly valued and critical to effective technical solutions.”

The New York Times Made it a Big Deal

It was after Sally Ride’s death in 2012 that her relationship to O’Shaughnessy was revealed in her obituary. According to Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, told 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.” Yet, almost a decade later, McClain is the first and only active astronaut whose sexual orientation is public.

Former astronaut Sally Ride left, and her partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy,
Former astronaut Sally Ride, left, and her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, Source:

And that wasn’t even her intention. Oddly enough, when the New York Times published the report, it wasn’t the first-ever mention of her relationship with Worden. Other than the LGBTQ+ media outlets, Business Insider and other publications mentioned that McClain and Worden were married. But it was only with the Times that this information gained serious traction and became public knowledge.

Fear of Being Honest

O’Shaughnessy said that there’s a “fear that ‘if I’m honest about who I am and tell others that I’m gay, then maybe I won’t get promoted, maybe I won’t get to fly in space, maybe I won’t be able to walk on the moon.’ I think that if other astronauts are members of the LGBTQ community or aspiring men and women out there who are members of the community and who are applying to become an astronaut, you know my sense is they’re gonna be worried about being open.”

Sally Ride and Tam O'Shaughnessy

O’Shaughnessy made sure to mention that she still believes that, while this specific situation is personally difficult and complicated, the fact that there can be an astronaut who is publicly part of the LGBTQ+ community would be amazing and could be vitally important. If handled properly, she thinks this could really be an opportunity to further expand NASA’s inclusivity.

“Out Astronaut”

Even since the Times report was released in August 2019, there’s been some progress that may indicate that the times are indeed ‘a-changin.’ Just a month later, Shannon Gatta, a student from the University of Washington and a previous Brooke Owens Fellow, was the winner of the “Out Astronaut” contest. The contest tries to increase representation in STEM fields and in space by helping openly LGBTQ+ scientists become astronauts and fly in space.

Shannon Gatta

Gatta, who identifies as pansexual, worked as a flight software engineer for NASA as well as a systems engineer for Ball Aerospace. She was a member of the U.S. military and served in Afghanistan, too. Gatta got a grant to attend the Space Academy at the Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.

An Astronaut Stranded in Space

This story of McClain and Worden and the first-ever criminal space activity is interesting in its own right, but outer space is full of interesting things. There is enough space in space (if you will) for incredible stories. If you want to know another personal story of an astronaut in space, you need to hear this.

Sergei Krikalev

In 1991, Sergei Krikalev was sent on a space mission. It was supposed to last just five months. However, that astronaut was stuck in space for 311 days. Due to the Soviet Union and money issues, Krikalev wasn’t able to come back when he was scheduled to. When Germany purchased a $24 million ticket to send Klaus-Dietrich as a replacement, Krikalev was finally able to return. But it was far from over.

It Was Supposed to be a 5-Month Mission

On May 9th, 1991, Sergei Krikalev launched on the Soviet Space Station Mir for a five-month mission. In January 1992, Krikalev was into his 8th month of the mission and had no idea when he was coming home. Krikalev was a flight engineer. He arrived at the Mir station with the first British astronaut, Helen Sharman, and Anatoly Artsebarsky, who spent five months aboard Mir.

Artsebarsky, Aubakirov, and Franz Viehböck

Sharman was conducting experiments and spent 8 days on Mir. Krikalev and Artsebarsky were ultimately left alone on the space station after Sherman returned to earth. The two of them used their time well. They conducted numerous scientific experiments and touched up the space station. On October 2, 1992, a relief crew bound for the Mir Station took off as planned to take over from Artsebarsky.

Date of Return?

Krikalev already agreed to extend his tour because Toktar Audakirov, the scheduled replacement, didn’t go through the training for long stays in space. Artsebarsky, Aubakirov, and Franz Viehböck, the first Austrian in space, all returned to earth on October 10th. Krikalev and Commander Aleksandr Volkov stayed aboard. The two of them were alone in the space station.

Astronauts eating is space

However, events at the U.S.S.R. down on earth put the date of their return in question. We’ll get to that later. First, let’s talk about the Mir Station. In 1976, the Mir project was initiated but a Soviet Decree. It took a decade before it made it to orbit. Mir was named after the Russian word for “peace.” The U.S.S.R. intended to use the spacecraft for long-term research projects.

Cramped in Space

In 1986, the Soviets launched the first of its modules. After the first module went into orbit, six more were added to complete the space station’s structure during the next decade. Mir orbited at a speed of over 17,000 miles per hour during its run. The altitude was between 220 and 232 miles away from earth.

Sergei Krikalev

There, Mir could accommodate up to six people. However, usually, just three astronauts lived there at once because it was so cramped. The station experienced 16 sunrises and sunsets every single day. Therefore, they had to back out portholes to stimulate night so that they can fall asleep. The astronauts usually woke up at about 8:00 AM in the Moscow time zone.

Every Spare Moment

In the morning, they ate breakfast and got ready, which can take a few hours. Then they work until 1:00 P.M. before coming home for lunch and a workout. After eating lunch, the astronauts spend another three hours working and one more hour of exercise. After that, they finally eat dinner and have some free time.

astronauts on Mir

Krikalev told Discover Magazine about his favorite pastimes in space. He said, “Every spare moment, we tried to look at the earth.” This is pretty interesting because most people can’t relate. In 1997 an American name Jerry Linenger spent time on Mir. He explained his experience of looking down on earth. “Today, I saw huge dust storms in the Sahara of Africa.”

The Longest Amount of Time

In 1988, Volkov and Krikalev finally came together. They were both abroad a spacecraft called Soyuz TM-7 when it was launched from Baikonur bound for the Mir station. Krikalev was on board as the engineer, and Volkov was the commander. Jean-Loup Chrétien was also abroad. In 1982, he was the first Frenchman in space.

Chrétien, Volkov, and Krikalev in their training-Sokols.
Chrétien, Volkov, and Krikalev in their training-Sokols. Source:

The three Soviet astronauts were on board with three more newcomers for 25 days. This was the longest amount of time that six people lived in the cramped station. After 25 days, two of the original cosmonauts and Chrétien returned to earth. However, Krikalev, Volkov, and Valeri Polyakov stayed aboard. At least they had more room now. In April of 1989, the three of them returned to earth.

Two Down, Two to Go

Polyakov had been on board for 240 days, and Krikalev and Volkov spend 151 days in orbit, on their first time aboard Mir. Polyakov went aboard Mir for the second time in 1994 and spent 437 days in space! It was the longest amount of time a person has been away from earth at the time. After one mission on Mir, Krikalev decided to reenter training for a Mir project in 1990.

Valeri Polyakov

For this mission, Krikalev was part of the back-up crew. This meant that Krikalev could fly if someone from the original crew backs out. Since nobody dropped out, Krikalev stayed on earth during this mission. However, by December that year, Krikalev was already in training for another Mir mission. For this one, he was a first choice crew member and not a backup. His preparation included making up to ten spacewalks.

Coming to Replace Him

Engineer Musa Manarov and crew commander Viktor Afanasyev were already aboard Mir when Krikalev, Artebarsky, and Sherman joined. On May 26th, 1991, they all returned to earth except for Krikalev and Artsebarsky. During this time, Artsebarsky did six spacewalks and spent more than 33 hours outside the spacecraft. There was a crew scheduled to come to replace Krikalev and Artsebarsky in October.

Valeri Polyakov watches from Mir as the Space Shuttle Discovery
Valeri Polyakov watches from Mir as the Space Shuttle Discovery practiced an approach maneuver in February 1995. The photo was taken by Vladimir Titov aboard the Space Shuttle. Source:

However, the engineer who was supposed to take over for Krikalev didn’t have enough training for a long stay in space. Due to the situation that July, Krikalev agreed to extend his stay on Mir. The relief crew still took off in mid-October 1991 but, not to replace Krikalev. The three newcomers from the relief crew were, Commander Alexander Volkov, Austrian scientist Franz Viehböck, and from the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, Toktar Aubakirov.

Changes Down on Earth

Supposedly, the Austrian government paid soviets $7 million to get Viehböck aboard Mir. On October 10th, Viehböck, Aubakirov, and Artsebarsky returned to Earth. Volkov and Krikalev were the only ones left on Mir. However, events at the U.S.S.R. complicated their stay. That August, just one month after Krikalev had agreed to extend his mission, Russia kicked things off.

space station Mir orbiting the Earth
The Russian space station Mir orbited the Earth from 1986 until 2001. This photo was taken from Space Shuttle Discovery in February 1995. Source: NASA

However, on August 19th, radical communists launched a military coup in Moscow because they were unhappy with the way things were going in the Soviet Union. Many changes washed over the Soviet Union building up to the coup attempt. Since 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev was the state leader. He oversaw reforms to the Soviet economy. Also, he was lessening the strict censorship that the U.S.S.R. had for years.

Overthrowing Soviets

This resulted affected the space program. Many territories, including East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, overthrew their Soviet-supported communist government in 1989. However, in 1991, the Russian Communist party decided on one more attempt to roll back the Gorbachev reforms. Tanks were pushed into Red Square in Moscow. This attempt ended in failure just two days later.

Earth and NASA's Space Shuttle Atlantis
Earth and NASA’s Space Shuttle Atlantis as seen from the Russian Federation Mir Space Station on July 2, 1995. Photo By NASA/Shutterstock

However, it managed to destabilize what was left of the Soviet Union. By December that year, the Soviet Union was destroyed. Unfortunately, it led to putting the Soviet space program and Mir space station in question. This was because the spacecraft bound of Mir was launched from the Baikonur Kazakhstan base, one of the republics fighting for independence.

Kazakh on Board

The Soviet authorities agreed to send a Kazakh national to Mir in an attempt to keep Kazakhstan on board. Toktar Aubakirov was chosen and arrived on October 2nd, 1991. His stay aboard the space station was short. He went in place of an experienced astronaut that should have been the one to replace Krikalev.

Mir Space Station
Mir Space Station Source: Shutterstock

Sergei Krikalev had been highly impacted by these events as 1991 continued, and things only got worse. On top of having already extended his original mission, there was no scheduled endpoint to his time on Mir. Krikalev admitted to Discover in 2016, that his prolonged stay in space was concerning. He was actually very stressed about how long he would be there.

Not Enough Money

Krikalev didn’t really understand what was happening. He kept being told that there wasn’t enough money to bring him back to earth. Mission control kept telling him to wait a bit longer. After another month passed, he kept getting the same answers. He said, “They say it’s tough for me – not really good for my health. But now the country is in such difficulty, the chance to save money must be the top priority.”

Space Station: Mir, 1995.
Space Station: Mir, 1995. Photo By Granger/Shutterstock

Krikalev expressed, “For us, it was totally unexpected. We didn’t understand what happened. When we discussed all this, we tried to grasp how it would affect the space program.” As expected, he was also worried about his own health and well-being. “Do I have enough strength? Will I be able to readjust for this longer stay to complete the program? Naturally, at one point, I had my doubts.”

The Tabloids

The Washington Post ran a story in 1992 titled, “Left in Space: The Cosmonaut’s Endless Orbit.” At that point, Krikalev was orbiting the earth for about nine months. The article stated that Krikalev got to speak to his wife Elena each week. What they didn’t mention, however, was that she was actually working at mission control.

Commander Vasili Tsiblyev, Aleksander Lazutkin, Reinhold Ewald
Mir, January 1997, the crew of Soyuz tm-25, mission: repair failing space station, left to right: commander vasili tsiblyev, aleksander lazutkin, Reinhold Ewald. Photo By Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/Shutterstock

Elena described her thoughts about the call to Discover Magazine. She explained, “I tried never to talk about unpleasant things because it must have been hard for him. As far as I can make out, Sergei was doing the same thing.” I can only imagine how tough it was for Elena back at home. The couple even had a new baby.

He Deserves the Honey

In addition to the stress of being trapped in space, Krikalev wasn’t making that much money being an astronaut. He earned just 500 Rubles a month, which was equivalent to $2.50. If you think the situation couldn’t get worse, Russia’s economic situation was also negatively affecting Krikalev’s comforts aboard the Mir.

Sergei krikalev (left) and Alexander Volkov play music aboard mir, 1989.
Soyuz tm-7: Sergei krikalev (left) and Alexander Volkov play music aboard mir, 1989. Photo By Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/Shutterstock

He loved honey, but sadly, there was a shortage in Russia. Instead, he received onions and horseradish as a substitute. The worst possible replacements for honey. Ultimately, a replacement team was on its way. Krikalev and Volkov would finally be able to go back to earth. On March 25th, 1992, both men arrived at their home planet safely, landing in Kazakhstan.

Home Sweet Home

However, by that time, Krikalev had circled the earth at least 5,000 times! He stayed in space for 311 days, which was a world record at the time. Unfortunately, he came back to his country, ruined. For Krikalev to return to earth, Germany paid $24 million to buy a ticket for Klaus-Dietrich Flade, his replacement. However, he finally made it back.

Space Shuttle Discovery Mission
Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, Space Shuttle Discovery Mission. Source: Shutterstock

It was reported that Krikalev’s appearance was “Pale as flour and sweaty like a lump of wet dough” when he returned. Not bad for someone stuck in space for over 300 days. Incredibly, the fearless Krikalev didn’t seem to be too affected by his uncertain stay aboard the Mir. In October of 1992, NASA promised to launch a space shuttle with a Russian on board.

A Legend

The Russian Space Agency chose Krikalev as one of the astronauts to train for this revolutionary partnership between Russia and America. In 1994 the shuttle launched, and Krikalev was aboard. An American named Robert Cabana and Krikalev were the first two astronauts aboard the International Space Station in 1998. He returned to the space station two more times and even did a six-month stay in 2005.

Sergei Krikalev
Sergei Krikalev. Photo By Kommersant Photo Agency/Shutterstock

Krikalev spent a total of 803 days in space and was on six different missions by the time he retired as an astronaut. However, he continued to work as a director of manned spaceflight at Russia’s Roscosmos State Corporation. Although Krikalev spent 311 days in space and unintentionally broke the record, he got beat a few years later. Valeri Polyakov beat him staying in space for 438 consecutive days. In 2018, Gennady Padalka also broke Krikalev’s record. Astronaut, Gennady Padalka, spent a total of 879 days in space, while Krikalev was there for 803 days. Still impressive if you ask me.