When Billie Jean and Condoleezza and Chelsea met Sally

Each year Sally Ride Science at UC San Diego hosts a Women in Leadership conversation, bringing together female leaders from widely varied fields to share their personal stories and their insights on the progress of women.

Tam O’Shaughnessy, Ride’s life partner and cofounder of Sally Ride Science, conceived of the event in 2018 to celebrate the US Postal Service’s release of a Forever stamp honoring America’s first woman in space. Panelists have ranged from pioneering astronauts to eminent scholars to sports luminaries. All share Ride’s commitment to empowering girls and women. Several have also had personal connections to Ride. Here’s a look at how some of the Women in Leadership contributors first encountered Sally Ride.

Broadcast journalist Lynn Sherr, who has moderated each of the panel discussions, interviewed Ride for ABC News 40 years ago, in May 1983, shortly before Ride’s historic spaceflight. They became friends, and after Ride’s death in 2012, Sherr wrote an acclaimed biography of the astronaut.

Lynn Sherr interviewed Sally Ride for ABC News in May 1983, shortly before Ride blasted off aboard shuttle Challenger to become the first American woman in space. (NASA photo)

Tennis great Billie Jean King was part of the first Women in Leadership panel, in 2018. Back in 1972, King was fresh off a Wimbledon win when she visited a tennis camp near Lake Tahoe. Ride, then a Stanford student, had a summer job teaching at the camp. During her visit, King faced off against the future astronaut in an exhibition mixed doubles match. Ride lost the match but gained a mentor and lifelong friend in King. The tennis champion told Ride that if she worked hard, she could become a pro player. But Ride had already decided on a physics career.

Tennis champion Billie Jean King played Sally Ride, then an undergraduate at Stanford, in a tennis mixed doubles exhibition in 1972. The male players were Dick Peters and Dennis Van der Meer. (Photo courtesy of Molly Tyson⁠.)

Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman in space, also joined the 2018 panel. Ochoa was getting her doctorate at Stanford in 1983 when Ride shattered NASA’s gender barrier. “I realized that was something that I would absolutely love to do, combine my interests in doing engineering and research and going into space all in one career,” Ochoa told NPR. Ride had left the astronaut office by the time Ochoa joined. They formed a friendship after Ride cofounded Sally Ride Science in 2001. “She reached out to me and to many of the other women astronauts and asked us to be speakers at the science festivals that they put on, which were particularly geared to getting middle school girls interested in science and engineering.” Ochoa recalled.

Condoleezza Rice, who served as Secretary of State and National Security Advisor to President George W. Bush, was the final member of the 2018 panel. Rice, an expert on the Soviet Union, was an assistant professor at Stanford in 1987 when Ride left NASA and began a two-year fellowship at the university’s Center for International Security and Arms Control. The two colleagues hit it off immediately. Both avid sports fans, they would often get together to watch football games on TV.

Former first daughter Chelsea Clinton, who serves as vice chair of the Clinton Foundation, joined in the second panel discussion, in 2019. Clinton recalls that when she was attending Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, in the early 1990s, she had a chance to meet one of her heroes. “I worshiped Sally Ride … and I wanted to know everything I could about her,” Clinton said on “The Late, Late Show with James Corden.” “When you’re 12 or 13, you’re already a little bit awkward, and I was already living out my awkwardness on the world stage. I got to meet Sally Ride, and I was so overwhelmed that I just tripped and fell right in front of her. And I hope she took that as a compliment, because that’s how I had to view it.”

NASA mission STS-41G, in 1984, was the first spaceflight with two female crew members. Kathy Sullivan and Sally Ride are shown aboard shuttle Challenger with a restraint system used to keep astronauts from floating around while they slept. (NASA photo)

Retired NASA astronaut Kathy Sullivan was part of the 2021 conversation, presented online due to the pandemic. Sullivan got to know Ride in 1978 when the two were among six women chosen as NASA’s first female astronaut candidates. They soon realized they had crossed paths back in 1958, when both were in first grade at Hayvenhurst Elementary School in Los Angeles. In 1984, they became crewmates on STS-41G, the second space shuttle mission for Ride and first for Sullivan. In an article for CNN, Sullivan recounted a “favorite memory” from that mission: When Mission Control woke up the crew on the first morning, “Instead of the normal response, ‘Roger,’ Sally launched into an answering machine reply: ‘We’re sorry, nobody can take your call right now. Please leave your name and number…’” The crew burst out laughing and carried on the joke for the rest of the mission.

Sally Ride greets a young fan during a visit to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in 2008. With them is Laurie Leshin, then Goddard’s deputy director for science and technology. Ride was a mentor and friend to Leshin over the years. (NASA photo/Bill Hrybyk)

Laurie Leshin, a geochemist who became the first female director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2022, joined the 2023 panel discussion. She was a young professor at Arizona State University when she met Ride, who became her mentor and friend. Today Leshin keeps a Lego minifigure of Ride on her desk and often talks about how the astronaut inspired her. “I was impressed by how she used her role, as the first US woman to fly in space, to help advance other young scientists,” Leshin said. “I hope to do something similar in my new job.”

Watch this year’s incredible program: Women in Leadership: A Conversation with Erin Jackson, Laurie Leshin, Natalia Molina, and Lynn Sherr.