Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–As a little girl, I used to stand in my backyard, gazing up at the stars and dreaming of going there. The pages in my Book of Knowledge encyclopedia that dealt with the moon, the galaxy and the universe beyond were well thumbed. I read all the science fiction books I could find in the local library.

But those books weren’t supportive of a little girl’s dreams. I remember, as a teen-ager, reading with dismay a story about the space ships of the future. There was a role for women, all right. They were prostitutes, along to service the men who were the heroes flying to the stars.

Well, the writer of that short story turned out to be wrong. Today, little girls can dream of going to the stars, because grown women like the brave astronauts on Columbia have gone there. Along with their male colleagues, they have slipped the surly bonds of Earth to take the first steps out into the galaxy.

Like their male compatriots, they have paid a price. Christa McAuliffe and Judy Resnik died on Challenger, just as Laurel Clark and Kalpana Chawla died in the skies over Texas on Saturday. But others will carry on their legacy–and that of Sally Ride, the first woman to fly, and Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot the shuttle. I could never have dreamed of such women when I gazed with longing at the stars as a little girl.

My daughter was just a few weeks away from being born when Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon. I talked to her, in utero, as I sat on the floor and watched the fuzzy black and white TV pictures. I couldn’t believe it–that I was actually watching that moment. I thought about my grandmother, whose father was a blacksmith in the horse and buggy age, and who lived to see the first man fly in space.

“We’re there,” I said to my daughter. “We are on the moon. Someday, maybe you’ll go there. Or your son or daughter will. We have taken the first step that will lead us to the stars. That’s where we are meant to go. Out there.”

Women Astronauts Are Modern Ulysses

Not too long ago, women as astronauts would have been unimaginable. The great scholar of myth, Joseph Campbell, once said that heroes were men seeking great dreams, and that women were merely the objects of that search, not the dreamers themselves. In “Reinventing Womanhood” Carolyn Heilbrun wrote her eloquent rebuttal: “Men have monopolized human experience . . . leaving women unable to imagine themselves as both ambitious and female.” She noted that women had to see themselves not as Penelope, waiting by the hearth, but as Ulysses, venturing outward. “Women must now say, ‘I wait no longer.'”

That was written in 1979. How quaint it now sounds. The women astronauts have become modern versions of Ulysses–not waiting, but soaring beside men to explore the universe.

The Columbia astronauts represented the best among us–and they reminded us how everyone has a part of the dream. The crew included a female astronaut born in India, an African American man and the first Israeli in space. It was not all that long ago–in my lifetime, to be exact–when women had no right to dream, when African Americans could not vote in many places nor even walk into lunch counters, when Jews were being murdered in Europe.

Ilan Ramon took with him a picture drawn by a young boy who was murdered at Auschwitz, a drawing of the stars that he would never be allowed to see again, much less visit. That Jewish boy died in a brutal place that represented the worst of humankind. It happened when I was a little girl.

Now, when I am a grandmother, a Jewish man has died after touching the face of the sky, so joyful at being in the heavens that he told a colleague he wished he didn’t have to go home. As it turned out, he didn’t get home, but like all the astronauts, he died doing what he loved to do, reaching, of his own free will, for the stars.

Americans first went into space to race the Russians to the moon, and they made it. But now the United States has opened the doors of the heavens to a diverse group of people: white, black, men, women, Arabs (there was a Saudi astronaut), Jews. Even as the face of the planet seems more torn, more divided, we share the heavens. Maybe this alone makes manned (and womanned) space flight so valuable.

Little girls will keep on dreaming, just like little boys. It’s why we have to keep humanned space flight, even if machines are more efficient. We are a species born to dream and what is a grander dream than taking flight to soar beyond our planet, to see the fragile green ball hanging in the heavens, making us understand that we are all riders on planet Earth? That’s a good thing to remember. In the end, we are all in his together.

The seven Columbia astronauts are now a part of our dreams, forever, their stories written in the skies, in joy and daring, in flame and death.

What is not so important is that they died. What is important is that they went.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.

For more information:

McAuliffe Center Website:

Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center:

Sally Ride Science Club Science Festivals for Girls!: