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Sally Ride, first U.S. woman in space, dies

Seen on board the space shuttle Challenger, astronaut Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman in space on June 18, 1983. (NASA)
July 23, 2012

Sally Ride, the first American woman to launch into space and later a leading advocate for science education, died on Monday (July 23). She was 61.

"Sally Ride died peacefully... after a courageous 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer," her company, Sally Ride Science, wrote on its website.

Ride made history on June 18, 1983 when she launched on space shuttle Challenger with the STS-7 mission crew. The first U.S. female astronaut to make a spaceflight, she was only the third woman worldwide to reach Earth orbit, following two Soviet cosmonauts, Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982.

"As the first American woman to travel into space, Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model," President Barack Obama said Monday in a statement. "She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars and later fought tirelessly to help them get there by advocating for a greater focus on science and math in our schools."

"Michelle and I were deeply saddened to hear about [her] passing," Obama said.

Ride, Sally Ride

A physicist, Ride was selected by NASA as a part of the 1978 astronaut class, the first to include women. She was chosen with five other female candidates and 29 men (the "Thirty-Five New Guys") out of 8,000 applicants.

Astronaut Sally Ride poses for her official NASA portrait (NASA)

Ride received basic training for five years before she and three of her TFNG classmates were assigned to STS-7. The mission deployed two communications satellites and performed a number of science experiments over its six days in orbit.

But it was her presence on the mission on that caught the world's attention.

"The fact that I was going to be the first American woman to go into space carried huge expectations along with it," Ride recalled during an interview with NASA for the 25th anniversary of her flight in 2008. "I didn't really think about it that much at the time — but I came to appreciate what an honor it was to be selected to be the first to get a chance to go into space."

Following that historic flight, Ride returned to space a year later on another mission aboard shuttle Challenger. The 8 day STS-41G flight deployed the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite, conducted Earth observations and demonstrated potential satellite refueling techniques. It was also the first time that two women flew in space together, as Kathryn Sullivan joined Ride as part of the crew.

Sally Ride, seen floating freely on the flight deck of space shuttle Challenger during the STS-7 mission in June 1983. (NASA)

Robert Crippen, who commanded both of Ride's missions as well as piloted the first shuttle mission, STS-1, in 1981, remembered the media attention placed on the first U.S. woman in space on her induction into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2003. "In the media," Crippen recalled, "the crew was known as 'Sally Ride and the others.'"

Ride was assigned to a third spaceflight, but transitioned to a role on the commission investigating the Challenger accident after her former spacecraft and fellow astronauts were lost in 1986. When the investigation was completed, she accepted an assignment as a special assistant to the NASA administrator for long range and strategic planning.

In total, Ride logged more than 343 hours in space.

Space history icon

"Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said on Monday, "and literally changed the face of America's space program."

Ride left NASA in 1987. Two years later, she accepted a position on the faculty at the University of California, San Diego, as a professor of physics and as the director of the University of California's California Space Institute.

Ride's contributions to NASA and the U.S. space program continued however, right up until her passing. She held the distinction of being the only person to serve as a member of both investigation boards following NASA's two shuttle accidents. She also served on the 2009 commission that helped shape the agency's current spaceflight programs.

Sally Ride communicates with the ground while looking out the forward windows of space shuttle Challenger, June 1983. (NASA)

From 1999 to 2000, she served as the president of the then-startup online news site, leading efforts to develop educational programming for students. In 2001, she founded her own company, Sally Ride Science, to pursue her long-time passion of motivating young women to pursue careers in science, math and technology.

In addition to organizing traveling science festivals and camps, Sally Ride Science oversaw the student-controlled MoonKam cameras on NASA's twin GRAIL lunar probes, which are still in orbit around the moon.

"Sally was an icon in the history of space exploration," the lead scientist for the GRAIL mission, Maria Zuber said. "She realized the great honor associated with being the first American woman in space and used her notoriety to promote education."

Behind the public persona

A native of Los Angeles, Ride graduated from high school there in 1968 and enrolled at Stanford University where she earned four degrees, including a doctorate in physics in 1978. She was also an accomplished athlete, playing varsity tennis at Stanford after being nationally ranked as a youth.

Sally Ride, as seen during one of the science festivals organized for young women by her company, Sally Ride Science. (SRS)

A recipient of numerous honors and awards, Ride notably was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame and received the Jefferson Award for Public Service, the von Braun Award, Lindbergh Eagle, and the NCAA's Theodore Roosevelt Award.

"Sally was a very private person who found herself a very public persona. It was a role in which was never fully comfortable," astronaut Steve Hawley, who was married to Ride from 1982 to 1987, said in a statement released by NASA. "I was privileged to be part of her life and be in a position to support her as she became the first American woman to fly in space."

"Sally Ride, the astronaut and the person, allowed many young girls across the world to believe they could achieve anything if they studied and worked hard," added Hawley. "I think she would be pleased with that legacy."

In addition to her partner of 27 years Tam O'Shaughnessy, Ride is survived by her mother Joyce; her sister Bear; her niece Caitlin, and her nephew Whitney.

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