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Sally Ride, NASA’s First Female in Space, Dies

Astronaut Sally K. Ride, Ph.D., the first American woman to fly into space, died on July 23, 2012, at her home in La Jolla, Calif. She had battled pancreatic cancer for 17 months. She was 61.

That an astronaut’s name is “Ride” is apropos – particularly when you’re a female pioneer who rode into Earth orbit (the first woman into space was Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who orbited Earth 48 times in 1963). The U.S. trailblazer rode aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1983 and took a second trip aboard the same shuttle one year later. At the time, she was the youngest astronaut, at 32.

“Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism – and literally changed the face of America’s space program,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “The nation has lost one of its finest leaders, teachers, and explorers. Our thoughts and prayers are with Sally’s family and the many she inspired. She will be missed, but her star will always shine brightly.”

Ride with her STS-7 crewmates. In addition to launching America’s first female astronaut, STS-7 was also the first mission with a five-member crew. Front row, left to right: Ride, Commander Bob Crippen, Pilot Frederick Hauck. Back row, left to right: John Fabian and Norm Thagard. NASA photo

Ride was a mission specialist on STS-7, which launched from Kennedy Space Center, Fla., on June 18, 1983. She was accompanied by Capt. Robert L. Crippen, spacecraft commander; Capt. Frederick H. Hauck, pilot; and fellow mission specialists Col. John M. Fabian and Dr. Norman E. Thagard. This was the second flight for Challenger and the first mission with a five-person crew. The mission duration was 147 hours before Challenger landed on a lakebed runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on June 24, 1983.

“As the first American woman to travel into space, Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model,” President Barack Obama said soon after news of her death broke. “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. Sally’s life showed us that there are no limits to what we can achieve, and I have no doubt that her legacy will endure for years to come.”

President Barack Obama greets former astronaut Sally Ride prior to the launch of the “Educate to Innovate” Campaign for Excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education, Nov. 23, 2009. Official White House photo

In 2001, she started the innovative science education company Sally Ride Science™ that is dedicated to supporting girls’ and boys’ interests in science, math, and technology. A key goal of the corporate mission is to make a difference in girls’ lives and in society’s perceptions of their roles in technical fields. Ride wrote five science books for children: To Space and Back; Voyager; The Third Planet; The Mystery of Mars; and Exploring Our Solar System.

“Sally lived her life to the fullest, with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, commitment and love. Her integrity was absolute; her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless,” read a statement on the company’s website.

Ride cleans out an air filtering system on the mid-deck of Challenger. Her T-shirt features a cartoon of 35 busy astronauts around a shuttle with the acronym “TFNG,” which stands for “thirty five new guys,” a nickname for the 1978 astronaut class. NASA photo

A native of Los Angeles, Ride graduated from high school there in 1968 and enrolled at Stanford University. At Stanford, she earned four degrees: bachelor’s degrees in physics and English in 1973, and a master’s and a doctorate in physics in 1975 and 1978, respectively. She also was an accomplished athlete who played varsity tennis at Stanford after being nationally ranked as a youth.

Ride received numerous honors and awards during the course of her career. Most notably, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame, and received the Jefferson Award for Public Service, the von Braun Award, the Lindbergh Eagle, and the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award. She was twice awarded the NASA Space Flight Medal.