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Sally Ride: The Life and Legacy of America‘s First Woman in Space

Portrait of Sally Ride in her NASA flight suit

In the early morning hours of June 18, 1983, astronaut Sally Ride made history as she launched into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, becoming the first American woman to fly in space. Over the course of her remarkable life and trailblazing career, Ride would overcome barriers, inspire generations of young women to pursue science, and leave an indelible mark on the U.S. space program and the world.

Early Life and Education

Sally Kristen Ride was born on May 26, 1951 in Encino, California, the older of two daughters. Her father was a political science professor at Santa Monica College and her mother was a volunteer counselor at a women‘s prison. Both were elders in the Presbyterian Church and instilled in their daughters a strong sense of social responsibility.[^1]

From a young age, Ride was equally passionate about athletics and academics. She was a nationally ranked junior tennis player and even considered pursuing the sport professionally. But she ultimately decided to focus on science and went on to earn bachelor‘s degrees in physics and English from Stanford University in 1973.[^2] She stayed at Stanford and obtained a master‘s degree and Ph.D. in physics in 1975 and 1978, respectively, studying astrophysics and free-electron lasers.[^3]

A young Sally Ride playing tennis

NASA Career and Historic Spaceflight

In 1977, as Ride was finishing her doctorate, she saw an article in the Stanford student newspaper saying that NASA was, for the first time, recruiting women to become astronauts. Out of 8,000 applicants, the 26-year-old Ride was one of 35 chosen for NASA‘s astronaut program, and she and five other women became the first female U.S. astronauts.[^4]

After completing her astronaut training, which included parachute jumping, water survival, and flying NASA‘s Northrop T-38 supersonic jet trainers, Ride was selected for her first spaceflight in 1983.[^5] On June 18, she launched aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger as part of STS-7, a 6-day mission to deploy communications satellites. With this flight, Ride became the first American woman—and at 32, the youngest American—to fly in space.[^6]

Sally Ride and the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger prepare to launch on the STS-7 mission

Ride‘s second and final spaceflight came the following year, in October 1984, also aboard Challenger. As a mission specialist, Ride was responsible for operating the shuttle‘s robotic arm to deploy and retrieve satellites, as well as perform other tasks outside the shuttle. In total, she spent over 343 hours in space.[^7]

Mission Launch Date Landing Date Duration Orbits
STS-7 June 18, 1983 June 24, 1983 6d 2h 23m 97
STS 41-G October 5, 1984 October 13, 1984 8d 5h 24m 132

Table: Sally Ride‘s space shuttle missions. Source: NASA[^8]

As the first American woman in space, Ride faced immense public scrutiny and pressure. She received sexist and demeaning questions from the media about how spaceflight would affect her reproductive organs and whether she would cry if something went wrong on the shuttle.[^9] She handled such inquiries with her characteristic wit and toughness. "It‘s too bad this is such a big deal. It‘s too bad our society isn‘t further along," she told reporters before her historic flight.[^10]

Academia and STEM Advocacy

Though she loved being an astronaut, the constant attention and pressure took a toll on the private Ride. In 1987, she decided to leave NASA and entered academia, becoming a physics professor at the University of California, San Diego and the director of the California Space Institute.[^11] Through these roles and various board positions, advisory councils, and government commissions, Ride remained closely involved with the space program for the rest of her life.

Most notably, she was the only person to serve on both committees investigating the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters. According to a NASA spokesperson, Ride "was one of those people who could take a very difficult, technical issue and distill it down to its essence and explain it to people."[^4]

Sally Ride teaching students about science

Outside of her official duties, Ride was passionate about promoting science education and encouraging girls to pursue careers in STEM fields. In 2001, she founded her own company, Sally Ride Science, which creates fun and engaging science programs, books, and festivals for elementary and middle school students, particularly girls.[^12]

Ride also penned seven science books for children, including To Space and Back, Voyager: An Adventure to the Edge of the Solar System, and The Third Planet: Exploring the Earth from Space, which won the American Institute of Physics Children‘s Science Writing Award in 1995.[^13] Through her writings and public appearances, Ride inspired countless young people to get excited about science and dream big about their futures.

Personal Life

Ride was a passionate, determined, and competitive person in all aspects of her life. She was an avid cyclist, runner, and flagfootball player, as well as a lifelong lover of literature and poetry.[^4] Though she was in a 27-year relationship with Tam O‘Shaughnessy, her childhood friend and science writing collaborator, Ride was famously private about her personal life.[^14] It was only upon her death on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61 from pancreatic cancer, that the world learned she was the first known LGBTQ astronaut.[^15]

Legacy and Honors

Sally Ride is remembered as a trailblazer who expanded the possibilities for women in science and changed the face of America‘s space program. She received numerous honors during her lifetime, including the NASA Space Flight Medal, the NCAA‘s Theodore Roosevelt Award, and the National Space Society‘s von Braun Award.[^16] She was inducted into the National Women‘s Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame.[^4]

U.S. postage stamp honoring Sally Ride

Following her death, Ride‘s pioneering legacy has been celebrated in countless tributes and memorials. In 2013, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America‘s highest civilian honor.[^17] The following year, the U.S. Navy commissioned a research vessel named for Ride, the R/V Sally Ride, which continues to help monitor the oceans she studied from space.[^18] She was depicted on a U.S. postage stamp in 2018 and had a lunar site named in her honor in 2019.[^4] There are also over 40 elementary and middle schools across the country bearing her name.[^13]

Yet beyond all of the individual honors, Ride‘s most enduring legacy may be her impact as a role model. As she said, "I would like to be remembered as someone who was not afraid to do what she wanted to do, and as someone who took risks along the way in order to achieve her goals."[^13] Ride will always be celebrated for breaking barriers, inspiring generations, and proving that women belong in space and STEM fields. Her courage, intelligence, and tireless efforts to uplift others continue to light the way for aspiring scientists of all backgrounds to reach for the stars.

Sally Ride floating in the middeck of the Space Shuttle Challenger during STS-7

References

[^1]: Joyce, Christopher (2012). "Sally Ride, First American Woman In Space, Is Dead At 61". NPR.
[^2]: Knapp, A. (2017). "Sally Ride, the First American Woman in Space, Began at Stanford". Stanford University.
[^3]: Grady, D. (2012). "American Woman Who Shattered Space Ceiling". The New York Times.
[^4]: Fox, M. (2018). "Sally Ride, the First American Woman to Fly in Space". Smithsonian Magazine.
[^5]: NASA (2022). "Sally Ride: Astronaut, Physicist".
[^6]: NASA (1983). "Astronaut Sally K. Ride, STS-7 Mission Specialist".
[^7]: Rao, J. (2018). "Sally Ride: First American Woman in Space". Space.com.
[^8]: NASA (2012). "Sally K. Ride (Ph.D.)".
[^9]: Sherr, L. (2014). Sally Ride: America‘s First Woman in Space. Simon & Schuster.
[^10]: Heiney, A. & Mohon, L. (2008). "Biographies of U.S. Astronauts – Sally Ride". NASA.
[^11]: NASA (2012). "NASA Remembers American Legend Sally Ride".
[^12]: Sally Ride Science (2022). "About Sally Ride Science".
[^13]: Tam O‘Shaughnessy (2015). Sally Ride: A Photobiography of America‘s Pioneering Woman in Space. Roaring Brook Press.
[^14]: Feeney, N. (2012). "Why Sally Ride Waited Until Her Death to Tell the World She Was Gay". The Atlantic.
[^15]: Curtis, D. (2016). "Tam O‘Shaughnessy, Sally Ride‘s Partner: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know". Heavy.com.
[^16]: Loff, S. (2020). "Sally Ride Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom". NASA.
[^17]: Nolan, W. (2015). "Navy Research Vessel Sally Ride Commissioned at Dakota Creek Industries". U.S. Navy.