When John Graham’s daughter Beverly returned home from school last Wednesday, he asker her why she looked so sad. She told him that she had heard about Sally Ride’s death in school that day.
Graham, who was ten in 1983, when Ride became the first American woman in space, admitted that he was pretty sure that Americans had stopped going into space right after the moon landing. Asked to name an American Astronaut, he said, “Neil Glenn or maybe Grissom.”
Graham’s wife, Mandy, who was aware of the Space Shuttle program but thought it was, “Canadian or something,” expressed surprise her daughter would be so concerned over someone who, “didn’t seem to be of any particular significance.” This in spite of the fact that Mrs. Graham wrote a report on Sally Ride for her first grade class on the person she most admired. The report, which earned four gold stars, was kept at her mother’s house where daughter Beverly had found it when she was five.
When reminded of the project, Mandy commented “Oh yeah! I thought I wrote that about Nancy Reagan.”
A depressing number of parents have had the same responses as the Grahams’. Hugh Varagas of San Francisco admitted he thought that there weren’t any female astronauts because, “Women aren’t allowed to serve in the military, are they?” His son Tony corrected him by pointing out that women not only served in all branches of the military but that members of the astronaut corps are not actually active duty members of the military. He said he remembered all of that from when the family visited Kennedy Space Center late in 2011.
Varagas sheepishly admitted he spent the majority of the visit in his car listening to a football game.
Following Ride’s death at the age of 61 last week, a national poll found that the majority of Americans aged 35-45 thought Sally Ride was either a Supermodel or the lead singer of the Go-Go’s. Another 15% of those polled identified her as, “that chick in Moonraker, right?” School aged children between the ages of 7 and 14 were almost all able to identify her as an astronaut.
A spokeswoman for NASA expressed disappointment, but not surprise over most adult’s limited knowledge of space exploration. She admitted that NASA needed to find a way to have adults retain the excitement for space exploration that most children still experience. She said they are making some progress and pointed to studies that show a growing percentage of Americans believe the moon landing wasn’t faked.
Recent polls show that almost 37% of adults with a high school diploma believe that “at least some” of the Apollo launches were real.
For his part, John Graham is proud his daughter is taking so much interest in space exploration. ”Maybe someday,” he says proudly, “she’ll be the first woman in space.”