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Interview with Tam O'Shaughnessy, partner of astronaut Sally Ride
by Sarah Toce
2013-12-18

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Sally Ride was the first female U.S. astronaut in space, and her world was an open book—to an extent.

The California native traveled the world talking about her adventures in the atmosphere, but no one really knew of her personal stories on the ground and in her own home. That key was kept within the heart of one Tam O'Shaughnessy—her companion of more than 27 years.

"Sally was an interesting blend of a person who wanted to do big things and, in a way, wanted to be famous, but only because that meant she did big, important things," O'Shaughnessy said.

And that she did.

One week before the death of her best friend and mate, O'Shaughnessy asked Ride what she should tell the media when they asked about their life together — about Ride's personal life in general. Ride left that decision up to O'Shaughnessy and vowed that she would be comfortable with whatever her partner ultimately decided. Ride died from pancreatic cancer. She was 61. In her obituary on July 23, 2012, it was written: "Dr. Ride is survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy; her mother, Joyce; and her sister, Ms. Scott, who is known as Bear."

What follows is an interview with O'Shaughnessy conducted via phone with Windy City Times.

Windy City Times: Can you tell us about your relationship with Sally Ride?

Tam O'Shaughnessy: Sally and I had a lot of fun doing the things we did over our 27 years together and actually even before, because we knew each other when we were kids, so we always spent time together and it was actually a big surprise when we got together romantically.

WCT: In the papers it says that you guys met at the age of 12. Is that an accurate depiction?

Tam O'Shaughnessy: It is true. We both grew up in Southern California, and we both started playing junior tennis at about the same time, when we were about 10 or 11. And then we both kinda got good enough to start playing the tournaments. And at that time in Southern California in the 1960s, Southern California was just a hotbed for tennis—Billie Jean King was emerging, Pancho Gonzales, Maria Bueno played. All of the great players came to Southern California from around the world, and it was just this great place for tennis. So, you know, Sally and I met at some time and some place in Southern California, and basically stayed friends the rest of our lives.

WCT: Billie Jean King was your coach as a junior player. How did that partnership come about?

Tam O'Shaughnessy: She was, yes. My mother ran a tennis tournament—I grew up in Fullerton, Calif., which is part of Orange County, and Sally grew up in Los Angeles County in Chino—anyway, my mom invited Billie Jean to play in her tournament, because my mom had a tennis tournament for juniors that'd also have these fun events like father/daughter, mother/son, mixed doubles, double everything. And Billie Jean had not won Wimbledon yet. She was an outstanding tennis player—she had just recently married Larry. Anyway, my mom calls her and says, "You wanna play in my little tournament? Maybe you can play with my daughter?" So Billie Jean and I, we won the women's doubles event, and then Billie Jean said, "Hey, would you like to take lessons from me? I'd love to help you."

And then actually, Billie Jean and I have been friends since that time. I met her when I was I think 13. She's one of my best friends. It's kind of a funny thing with tennis, the tennis community back when Sally and I were growing up, it was so close-knit that many of Sally's best friends and most of my best friends kind of came out of tennis.

WCT: Do you still play?

Tam O'Shaughnessy: You know, I really don't. I kind of go out and hit about once a decade for about 10 minutes. But it's kind of funny—when Sally died, it was such a horrid loss, that I found myself missing playing tennis, and like a week after she died, I walked to UCSD [University of California, San Diego]—which is just a couple miles from our home—and I hit tennis balls against the wall. And I found it so comforting, it was really interesting. So I'm actually thinking of joining a tennis club and just hitting. Because it's really a big part of me, and I hadn't realized how much I missed it until Sally died.

WCT: Sally was the first American female astronaut in space, but she was such a private person. It seems like she didn't really let that accomplishment go to her head.

Tam O'Shaughnessy: You mean kind of being absorbed by her celebrity?

WCT: Exactly. She was able to keep herself a human being, a normal person that everyone could relate to; she was very quiet. How did that work?

Tam O'Shaughnessy: You know, Sally's … that's just who Sally was—she was an interesting blend of a person who wanted to do big things and, in a way, wanted to be famous, but only because that meant she did big, important things. But at the same time what Sally loved was a very normal life. She just thrived on having a home life where she could get away from work, get away from any of the demands of celebrity, and just be a normal person—play catch in the back yard, go for walks, go to the grocery store. She liked doing all that stuff herself. So I think it was just her nature.

And she also … I think because she grew up playing tennis—tennis actually turned out to be a wonderful way to grow up, because it taught—and I talked to my other friends about this too—it taught all of us really important life lessons. And one of them was it sort of made us immune to celebrity. Because as kids we were around famous people, like Rod Laver … I don't know if you know these tennis players, but the best tennis players in the world. And then sports figures always attracted movie stars and singers—you know, all these other celebrities.

WCT: What was one of the major life lessons you can recall from that time frame?

Tam O'Shaughnessy: As kids, we experienced that if you're a winner, if you're winning, if you keep winning in a tennis tournament, the people in the tennis tournament give you more—the families that come out to watch, the press, they give you more attention. And then as soon as you lose, they don't really … you're dropped. It taught us, and it taught Sally, to not take celebrity too strongly. It comes and goes, so make sure that what you care about, what you believe in, and who you are, are solid things. And fame is not something to reach for—reach for things you're passionate about and everything else will come.

WCT: That's a really great lesson. And it makes sense. Now I understand that when you went to the White House to accept Sally Ride's posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom recently, you were there along with Sally's family. Were they always accepting of your relationship?

Tam O'Shaughnessy: Oh, absolutely. Sally never verbally, openly told her mother, her father, or her sister, Bear, that she was gay and that we were a couple. But Sally never hid it from them—you know, I went everywhere with Sally, and she went everywhere with me … in our different careers and with our friends, and for family holidays. So over the almost three decades, I was really part of the Ride family. And her parents are really smart—especially her mother and her sister—they knew a long time ago that we were a couple. And her mother is very progressive.

Sally easily could have told her a long time ago, and Joyce Ride would not have cared, she would not have blinked. But it just shows how strong Sally's sense of privacy was, and also I think fear.

Her mother actually turned 90 the day before the Medal of Freedom ceremony, so we had a big party at the Willard Hotel that we were all staying in. We had a really good time and, actually, Joyce Ride had made friends with Gloria Steinem at Sally's first launch in 1983 and Gloria came to the birthday party. [Sen.] Barbara Mikulski came to the birthday party because Barbara was good friends with Sally, and then Barbara Mikulski helped me kind of … in a way, make NASA do the right thing and help me put on the national tribute for Sally in May at the Kennedy Center in Washington. And we had fun.

WCT: Well, that's what it's all about. At the end of the day it's all about family.

Tam O'Shaughnessy: I agree.

WCT: How about your family, then? Were they accepting of your relationship with Sally? Did they know about it?

Tam O'Shaughnessy: Even more. I actually played a few years of professional tennis, so I was on very early Women's Tennis Assocation, Virginia Slims Circuit. And the circuit was very close-knit and, of course, some of the women were gay, many others were not. But people kind of didn't care, so once I realized I was attracted to women, and I was like 22 years old—I was used to a world that was very approving. And so I immediately, next time I was home, took my mother out for Mexican dinner and told her I was gay. And she kind of couldn't talk about it—I think she was shocked.

I don't think she really liked it, but she never said anything bad or … we basically never talked about it again. But my sisters—I have two sisters, one younger, one older—and they were just wonderful. I told them and they were … they wanted to try to understand, and they quickly did, and it was kind of no big deal. When I told my family it was the mid-1970s, but they had already lived through the '60s, so I think that helped.

WCT: Let's talk about Sally Ride Science. What was the starting point of the foundation?

Tam O'Shaughnessy: It actually kind of evolved. On Sally's side—once she became an astronaut, even before her first flight—she was giving talks around the country to schools, teachers and kids, and corporations, and stuff. And she'd always talk about seeing that sparkle in their eye when she talked about being in space—and the first man on the moon, and she was getting ready to go up there, and just what it might be like. And then after her first flight, of course for a while, she was the most famous person on earth and gave tons of talks. And she'd see that same … just that teachers and kids, parents, CEOs … the light would go off in their eyeballs when she'd talk about looking back at earth from space and floating weightless and floating grapes into the mouths of the other astronauts, and all these fun stories. And Sally realized she could use space as a way to motivate and inspire teachers and kids and science.

And she also knew that she really felt like her life got made because she majored in science and physics. And it taught her to think for herself, be able to critically evaluate things about her community, about her own health, whatever. And so she didn't understand why kids didn't really like science, why they weren't good at it, why the scores were horrid. And she kind of started getting into it.

WCT: And what was your focus at this time?

Tam O'Shaughnessy: I was a biology major, and I started teaching biology—and I saw my students just read a paragraph in a biology textbook ( I taught one year of 8th grade biology and then I taught undergraduates ) and it was almost the same: 8th grade or a 20-year-old, they'd read the paragraph in a biology book—maybe about photosynthesis—and they just couldn't retain it. They couldn't get the gist of the information, so it's sort of like what's going on here? We've got to help kids at a very young age stay excited about science and really want to do the work to understand science concepts.

When Sally became a professor at UCSD—that was 1989—I was in Atlanta, I moved out; that's when we started living together. We just started talking about science education in our country and we just talked about it. And then we started writing children's science books together.

WCT: How did the desire to release children's books together come to light?

Tam O'Shaughnessy: That kind of grew out of that same interest that both of us had, which was we loved to go to bookstores, and we'd look at the science section, but also science fiction, biographies, nutrition, whatever, we just loved book stores. But what we noticed in the mid-1980s was that the science section had like three books in it, and the non-fiction was much slimmer than the fiction for kids. And then we'd pick up science books for kids, and they just weren't very good. They weren't exciting. They weren't interesting. They weren't accurate. Except for—there's always a few good examples. Isaac Asimov wrote great children's science books.

Anyway, we just thought, "Maybe we can do this." And Sally had written one children's science book called To Space And Back with her high school friend Sue Okie about her experiences in space. And so she had a little bit of a background and experience—I had none, but I just thought it would be fun to try. Our science writing worked really well and we just loved working on these books. And then it's just like it all came together—in 2001 is when we started the company with a few friends.

WCT: And out of all of this, Sally Ride Science was born?

Tam O'Shaughnessy: Sally convinced NASA to fund a middle school project called Earth Cam. She convinced NASA to put a camera to fly aboard the space shuttle and then later the International Space Station. And then set up this whole system where middle school kids and teachers from around the country could learn about orbits, learn about day and night, and select what part of earth they wanted photographed—and that's why it's called Earth Cam—from the space station. And this program has been going for 19 years now and it's still going.

But that turned out to just be a really exciting educational program with mission control for undergraduate students at UCSD and they did all the programming and so on for the camera on the shuttle and then the space station. But then the middle schools from around the country would send their selections to UCSD mission control, they would get relayed to NASA, to real mission in Houston, and then transmitted up to the space shuttle and later the space station, and the camera would get programmed, the photos that were selected by students would get snapped, and everything would get relayed backwards to UCSD and out to the schools.

All these experiences came together and we started talking to some of our friends about science education in our country not going so well, and maybe we can do something about it. And we started the company — we were very naive — we didn't know really what we were doing, and we just kind of went by the seats of our pants. But it's worked, and the good news is after Sally passed away, we were all really worried about our sponsors and would people still support the company without its charismatic leader? But they have. And that also is a testament to Sally, because her vision for the company was to really make the company independent of her. That we would create excellent books and programs and events for students and teachers, and corporate America that would stand on their own … and we lucked out, that's what we did.

WCT: Working so closely with Sally, and also being her partner, and also being somewhat in the closet—especially to the outside world, not your families as much—were there ever moments that were a little bit difficult? Where maybe you didn't agree on something or where the course of your relationship might have shifted because of work? Or did you guys keep that really separate?

Tam O'Shaughnessy: Good questions. I think overall we actually did really well living and working together, and spending a ton of time together. But it was challenging on occasion—both because of the gay issue and because of—it's really hard to separate your personal life from your work life if you do everything together.

Sally was the CEO of Sally Ride Science, and I became the COO, and we would have differences in opinion about the direction of the company or people in the company—whether they were contributing as much as they needed to be contributing, and what to do about it, and whatever. But halfway into the company—it took us a long time to figure this out, probably a little too long—but starting a business is so demanding, and we worked seven days a week.

So we were working too hard and then we were talking about the company too much. And we realized—I can't remember when … 2004, 2005 some time—that when we came home in the evenings we needed to stop talking about Sally Ride Science and just spend time together and talk about other things—and the same on weekends. And that really helped. We weren't really arguing, but it's just that we were exhausted and we were putting out too much energy towards the company and a little less on just our personal relationship—and we didn't want to do that. We liked each other too much and we wanted that private romantic side there, too. But it took us a while because the company was just so absorbing.

WCT: What were some differences between you and Sally?

Tam O'Shaughnessy: On the gay side of things, Sally and I are very different human beings. We have a ton in common, but Sally very seldom thought about what other people thought of her. She just didn't care. And I'm more a person that … I'll give you an example: we were always with each other doing things with our friends and acquaintances and colleagues and so on. And Sally might invite me—she was having dinner with a friend or a colleague and, "Come on, Tam, you come." And so I'd go … and Sally would never introduce me as, "This is my partner," "This is my mate" … she would say, "This is Tam," "Here's Tam." And, of course, we'd talk about Sally Ride Science and the new books or whatever, all that fake stuff. And Sally just wouldn't even think about if other people were wondering why we were together, who I was personally—it just would not cross her mind. But it would cross my mind, I'd just be thinking, "Oh I wonder what these two are thinking? Are they wondering if we're gay?"

It's kind of funny, but a tad stressful at times, too. In hindsight, Sally and I could've been open. We should've been open quite a few years ago. Quite frankly, starting our company in 2001—we were just really afraid that our company wouldn't get off the ground if people knew that the two of us were together. That we wouldn't get the sponsorships from General Electric, Exxon Mobile, and on and on you go. And I also think the gay movement the last five years has just skyrocketed—I mean it's just changing so quickly now.

I wish I could've married Sally, I would've married her in a heartbeat. We were domestic partners the last 12 years. But the thing I noticed—ever since I made the decision to be open about Sally and I—the response has been nothing but positive. And in my community here, La Jolla, Calif., is very white, very conservative in a way, except—well, I shouldn't say conservative, because the university's here—it's all sorts of things. But I've never felt as comfortable here in La Jolla as I feel in the Bay Area, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Atlanta. And suddenly, everybody knows, and they're completely friendly, respectful, loving, so it's a new world, and it feels really good.

Learn more about Sally Ride Science by visiting sallyridescience.com .

CAPTIONS:

1. Sally Ride at work as an astronaut. NASA photo

2. Sally Ride and Tam O'Shaughnessy giving the keynote speech at American Library Association in 2009 Anaheim Convention Center, about how they write together, their new books on earth and its changing climate, and Sally Ride Science. Photos from O'Shaughnessy

3. Astronaut Sally Ride (left) is pictured with partner Tam O'Shaughnessy and their dog Gypsy in this photo from 1985. Photo from O'Shaughnessy.

4. O'Shaughnessy accepts Sally Ride's Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. Photo by Patsy Lynch


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