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Sally Ride: First American Woman in Space

Sally Ride floats in space on STS-7 mission.
Floating freely on the flight deck, Sally Ride communicates with ground controllers in Houston during her STS-7 mission in June 1983.
Credit: NASA

Sally Ride became the first American woman to go into space when she flew on the space shuttle Challenger on June 18, 1983. She made two shuttle flights, and later became a champion for science education and a role model for generations.

Tennis and physics

Born in Encino, Calif., on May 26, 1951, Sally Kristen Ride was the older of two daughters of Dale B. Ride and Carol Joyce (Anderson) Ride. Her father was a professor of political science and her mother was a counselor. While neither had a background in the physical sciences, she credited them with fostering her deep interest in science by encouraging her to explore.

An athletic youngster, Ride attended Westlake High School for Girls, a prep school in Los Angeles, on a partial tennis scholarship. She graduated in 1968. After a brief foray into professional tennis, she returned to California to attend Stanford University. There she received a bachelor of science degree in physics and a bachelor of arts degree in English in 1973. Furthering her studies at Stanford, she obtained a master of science degree in 1975 and a doctorate in physics in 1978.

After completing her studies at Stanford, Ride applied to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Besting thousands of applicants, Ride was selected as one of NASA's first six female astronauts and began spaceflight training in 1978.

Ride started her aeronautics career on the ground, serving as a capsule communicator as part of the ground-support crew for the second (November 1981) and third (March 1982) shuttle flights.

At 32, Ride experienced her first spaceflight as a mission specialist on STS-7, NASA's seventh shuttle mission, aboard the space shuttle Challenger. The mission launched on June 18, 1983 and returned to Earth on June 24. Tasks on the mission included launching communications satellites for Canada and Indonesia. The astronauts also conducted the first successful satellite deployment and retrieval in space using the shuttle's robotic arm. During the flight, Ride became the first woman to operate the shuttle's robotic arm.

Ride's history-making Challenger mission was not her only spaceflight. She also became the first American woman to travel to space a second time when she launched on another Challenger mission, STS-41-G, on Oct. 5, 1984. That mission lasted nine days. On that flight, she used the shuttle’s robotic arm to remove ice from the shuttle's exterior and to readjust a radar antenna. Ride was assigned to a third shuttle mission, but her crew's training was cut short by the Challenger disaster in January 1986. [Images: Sally Ride: First American Woman in Space]

Space shuttle investigations

While Ride shaped the future of space aeronautics on her first historic Challenger flight, she continued to influence the space program after her days of space travel were over. Ride served on the accident investigation boards set up in response to the two space shuttle tragedies — Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. In 2009, she participated in the Augustine committee that helped define NASA's spaceflight goals.

From 1982 to 1987, Ride was married to fellow astronaut Steven Hawley. They had no children.

Former astronaut Sally Ride at the Sally Ride Science Festival in Florida in 2003.
Former astronaut Sally Ride talks to young women at the Sally Ride Science Festival, held at the University of Central Florida, Orlando, Fla., in 2003.
Credit: NASA

Post-NASA work

While she left NASA in 1987, her passion for space and science never waned. Ride joined Stanford University Center for International Security and Arms Control after leaving NASA. She later became a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. She served as president of SPACE.com from 1999 to 2000.

Believing that it was important encourage students — especially girls — to embrace the study of science, she founded Sally Ride Science, a science outreach company, in 2001. One of the company's efforts included adding the MoonKam experiment onto unmanned NASA's Grail moon gravity probes, which allowed students to choose and take their own photos of the moon from lunar orbit.

Ride also wrote five science-related children’s books: To Space and Back; Voyager; The Third Planet; The Mystery of Mars; and Exploring Our Solar System.

Ride died on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61 following a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Ride is survived by Tam O'Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years, and also chief operating officer and executive vice president of Sally Ride Science, as well as her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear; her niece, Caitlin, and her nephew, Whitney.

— Kim Ann Zimmermann

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