Sally Ride's Legacy: 1st Female Space Shuttle Commanders Speak Out

Seen on the flight deck of the space shuttle Challenger, astronaut Sally K. Ride, STS-7 mission specialist, became the first American woman in space on June 18, 1983.
Seen on the flight deck of the space shuttle Challenger, astronaut Sally K. Ride, STS-7 mission specialist, became the first American woman in space on June 18, 1983. (Image credit: NASA)

This story was updated at 3:45 p.m. EDT.

The news of Sally Ride's death yesterday (July 23) has impacted many around the globe, most especially those who traveled directly in her footsteps.

Sally Ride became the first American woman in space when she flew on the space shuttle Challenger in 1983. Since then, dozens of U.S. females have made spaceflights. Two of them, Eileen Collins and Pamela Melroy, achieved another historic milestone, becoming the only women to command a space shuttle mission.

"I knew I wanted to be an astronaut from watching the Apollo astronauts land on the moon, but Sally cemented the belief inside me that I could do it," Melroy wrote in an email to "She paved the way for women to work in space and made it so much easier for other women to follow where she led."

Collins became the first female space shuttle commander when she led the STS-93 flight of the shuttle Columbia in July 1999, just 16 years after Ride's first flight. Melroy then commanded the space shuttle Discovery in 2007, becoming the last woman to command a shuttle before the fleet retired in 2011. [Sally Ride: 1st American Woman in Space (Pictures)]

"I am surprised and saddened by the news of Sally Ride’s passing," Collins wrote in an email yesterday. "She was such a wonderful role model and source of inspiration to me.  People around the world still recognize her name as the first American woman in space, and she took that title seriously even after departing NASA.  She mentored me several times during my astronaut career, leaving me with many cherished memories."

NASA's two female shuttle commanders: Eileen Collins, at left, and Pamela Melroy, at right. (Image credit: NASA)

Collins, who retired from NASA in 2006, said Ride inspired by example.

"She never sought media attention for herself, but rather focused on doing her normally outstanding job," Collins said. "Her 'Sally Ride Science' programs have reached thousands of middle school girls, giving them the confidence to stay focused on math and science, even when the mass media message was otherwise. She also played a notable role in both the Challenger and Columbia accident investigations.  Sally left us too soon. God Speed Sally, you will be greatly missed."

Collins and Melroy are not the only women to have commanded space missions. NASA's current chief astronaut is veteran spaceflyer Peggy Whitson, who commanded the International Space Station's Expedition 16 mission in 2007 and 2008. The space station's second female commander, Sunita Williams, is on the orbiting laboratory now and will take command later this year.

"The selection of the 1978 Astronaut Class that included Sally and several other women, had a huge impact on my dream to become an astronaut. The success of those woman, with Sally paving the way, made my dream seem one step closer to becoming a reality," Whitson said in a statement.

Ride, a physicist, took her status as role model seriously, and harnessed it to reach out to students through Sally Ride Science, the company she founded in 2001. The organization worked to inspire boys and girls in the subjects of science, math and technology through outreach in classrooms and teacher training.

"I met Sally for the first time on her speaking tour after her first flight, shortly after I had graduated from Wellesley College," said Melroy, who retired from NASA in 2009 and now works at the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation. "She was fascinating, smart, humble, very nice - and completely inspirational."

Sally Ride  died at age 61 in San Diego, Calif., of pancreatic cancer.

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Clara Moskowitz
Assistant Managing Editor

Clara Moskowitz is a science and space writer who joined the team in 2008 and served as Assistant Managing Editor from 2011 to 2013. Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She covers everything from astronomy to human spaceflight and once aced a NASTAR suborbital spaceflight training program for space missions. Clara is currently Associate Editor of Scientific American. To see her latest project is, follow Clara on Twitter.