Astronaut Sally Ride brought women and the LGBTQ+ community to the final frontier 40 years ago

sally ride in a flight suit smiling and floating in the deck of the space shuttle with black space visible through the windows
Sally Ride was the first U.S. woman in space and the first known LGBTQ+ astronaut. (Image credit: NASA)

Forty years ago today, the first American woman astronaut launched in the middle of a media storm.

Sally Ride, who spent nearly a week in orbit on the space shuttle starting June 18, 1983, later said in a NASA interview she faced "a flurry of media activity" and requests "just incessant for months."

"Everybody wanted a piece of me," Ride said in the 2002 oral history, recorded about 10 years before her death from cancer. Ride added that she regretted that being the first U.S. woman in space was not a more "normal occurrence" and as a result, received so much attention for the milestone.

The ruby anniversary of Ride's flight coincidentally falls during Pride Month, first established nationally in 1999. Ride (who also once served as president of chose to disclose her LGBTQ+ status posthumously; as such, she is also the first known member of that community to fly in space.

Related: Sally Ride's Life Partner Weighs in on the Future of LGBTQ+ Astronauts

Ride, just finishing a Ph.D. in theoretical physics at Stanford University, joined NASA in 1978 in the astronaut class nicknamed "The Thirty-Five New Guys." The group was specifically meant to bring in women and Black astronauts who had been systematically excluded from spaceflight for two decades. (NASA's recruitment efforts included events with Nichelle Nichols, a Black woman who played an astronaut on "Star Trek".)

Karen Panetta, a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) argued Ride played down her sexuality because she wanted to be judged on her capabilities. Ride's attitude was "I'm here because I'm among the best, and gender didn't even play a role," Panetta told

Panetta (who never met Ride) took a page from the astronaut's book, saying she admired Ride for knowing how to "ignore the noise" that came from being the first flown woman astronaut at NASA. 

For example: Panetta, now the dean of graduate education in the Tufts University school of engineering, was once offered a position as the chair of her department. "In its 100-year history, [it] never had a woman female chair, and I said no," Panetta said. "People were shocked: 'You would have been the first!' And it's like, 'That's not why I want a job.' I don't want to be selected because I'm a woman. I want to be selected because of my skills."

Instead, Panetta took those skills to found the international Nerd Girls program that has served more than 85,000 children, parents and educators through engineering outreach activities.

Related: NASA needs sharper diversity focus to boost representation, audit finds

NASA astronaut Sally Ride (left) meets with Girl Scout Lily Nelson of Troop 153 in northern Virginia in December 2001, during Space Day at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. (Image credit: Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images)

Panetta pointed to the large waves that Ride left in the space world outside of the two space shuttle flights the astronaut is best remembered for. For example, Ride famously served on the investigation boards of two shuttle flights that failed, killing seven astronauts each: Challenger in 1986, and Columbia in 2003.

Panetta herself has incidental linkages with both flights. As a youngster she attended Challenger's launch and witnessed the explosion that killed its crew, which included schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. As for Columbia, Panetta interacted directly with members of the investigation board that served under Ride.

Sally Ride (far right) stands with members of the Challenger space shuttle accident commission as they present their report to then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the Rose Garden of the White House. Also present, from left to right: Robert Hotz, William Rogers, Arthur Walker Jr. and (between Reagan and Ride) Donald Kutyna. (Image credit: Dirck Halstead/Getty Images)

"Whenever I would work with them," Panetta said of the Columbia investigators, who she invited to speak to classes, "they would say, 'Oh, Sally's brilliant. They would do a presentation and say, 'Most of this came from Sally.' "

"What I loved about it," she continued, "was (that) one of the things women struggle with — along with underrepresented groups — is that folks sometimes don't give women credit for their ideas. Her camaraderie, and her ability to bring people in and make everybody feel valued, (caused them) to naturally gave back and attribute their successes to her."

Related: 20 years after Columbia shuttle tragedy, NASA pledges 'acute awareness' of astronaut safety

Panetta was so inspired by Ride and astronauts like her that she once applied to be an astronaut candidate. Panetta was derided by some of her peers for thinking she was worthy of working at NASA. While Panetta nevertheless was not selected, she says that experience has shown her how important it is to be inclusive with students.

"My first opening when I meet with the students is, 'What's the dream?' They're like, 'Math and science.' I'm like, 'No, no, what's the dream? That's not a dream'," Panetta told

"Some of them are closed up and are ashamed," she continued. "They feel like you're going to laugh at them for having big, aspirational goals. I think that's something that for all young people, whether they're engineers or not, Sally definitely embodied: It's okay. You should have big dreams."

Reflecting on Ride's role in the LGBTQ+ community, Panetta said dreaming is especially important in underrepresented groups. "Nobody is like anybody else ... everybody is unique and we should celebrate that," she added. 

"Sally definitely celebrated intellect, and energy, and (especially) the two words I always think of is respect and kindness. It doesn't matter who you are — respect and kindness. That's it."

This story was corrected June 23 to reflect the accurate title of the dean.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon:

  • monkeyonmars
    Admin said:
    Sally Ride's journey to space not only continues to inspire young students 4 decades later, but shows the value of diversity and respect, a woman engineering dean argues.

    Astronaut Sally Ride brought women and the LGBTQ+ community to the final frontier 40 years ago : Read more
    Diversity but little respect.
  • COLGeek
    Closing this thread now.