Washington — The six days Sally Ride spent in space on a 1983 space shuttle Challenger flight changed a lot for American women, especially women scientists. As the first U.S. woman astronaut, Ride proved that women could excel in space exploration and the science that makes it possible.
Ride, 61, died of cancer July 23.
A native of Los Angeles, Ride earned four degrees at Stanford University, including a doctorate in physics in 1978. She also was an accomplished athlete who played varsity tennis at Stanford after being nationally ranked as a youth.
Ride joined NASA in 1978 as part of the first astronaut class to include women. She and five other women, along with 29 men, were selected out of 8,000 applicants.
“The fact that I was going to be the first American woman to go into space carried huge expectations along with it,” Ride recalled in a 2008 interview. “That was made pretty clear the day that I was told I was selected as a crew.”
Ride’s place in history was assured on June 18, 1983, when she rocketed into space on Challenger’s STS-7 mission with four male crewmates. The six-day mission deployed two communications satellites and performed a number of science experiments.
“The thing that I’ll remember most about the flight is that it was fun,” Ride said in her biography, To Space and Back. “In fact, I’m sure it was the most fun I’ll ever have in my life.”
Ride flew in space again aboard Challenger in 1984. Since Ride’s historic flight, 44 U.S. women astronauts have completed missions in space.
Ride went on to direct NASA’s Office of Exploration. She was a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology for eight years.
Ride left NASA in August 1987 to join the faculty at the University of California, San Diego, as a professor of physics and director of the University of California’s California Space Institute. In 2001, she founded her own company, Sally Ride Science, which focuses on motivating girls and young women to pursue careers in science, math and technology.
Ride wrote a number of science books for children and created education projects designed to fuel middle school students’ fascination with science.
"Sally’s life showed us that there are no limits to what we can achieve,” President Obama said upon news of her death.
“As the first American woman to travel into space,“ Obama said, “Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model. 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.”
“I have no doubt that her legacy will endure for years to come,” Obama said.