This week marks a sad period in aerospace history, when female trailblazer Sally Ride passed away after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer at the age of 61. Not only was she the first American female astronaut into space, she was also the youngest at 32, when on the Challenger mission in 1983.
It’s befitting that we pay homage to a woman who helped forge the way for other women to look to a career at NASA, and also be astronauts.
Sally Kristen Ride was born May 26, 1951, in Encino, Los Angles, California. She was very much studious child and excelled in science at school, while attending Westlake School for Girls, (now Harvard- Westlake School) to where she won a scholarship.
After Ride graduated from high school, she attended Swarthmore College, for a three semesters, while also attending the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), then entering Stanford University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English and physics. While at Stanford, Ride earned her master’s degree and Ph.D in physics.
When Ride was growing up her other passion in life tennis was something that she excelled at. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the entire United States. Even tennis legend Billie Jean King, personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to college instead.
Answering an ad in the newspaper for recruits to the space program, Ride was a successful candidate out of 8,000 people who applied for a role, and joined NASA in 1978.
On June 18, 1983, she became the first American woman in space on the Space Shuttle Challenger. Two Soviet cosmonauts, Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya were the first women in space, in 1963 and 1982 respectively. Ride was also the first woman to use the CanArm (space arm) to retrieve a satellite.
In 1984, Ride went on her second space mission aboard The Challenger, spending nearly two weeks in space. She was slated for a third mission in 1986, however after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, where 7 astronauts died, when the shuttle exploded on their accent into space, put her mission on hold permanently, and never returned to space again.
Ride still continued to work for the space program, and was assigned to NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. where she led NASA’s first strategic planning effort, authored a report entitled “Leadership and America’s Future in Space” and founded NASA’s Office of Exploration.
In 1987, Ride left her position in Washington, DC, to work at the Stanford University Centre for International Security and Arms Control. In 1989, she became a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego and Director of the California Space Institute.
In 2003, she was asked to serve on the Space Shuttle Columbia Accident Investigation Board. She was the president and CEO of Sally Ride Science, a company she founded in 2001 that creates entertaining science programs and publications for upper elementary and middle school students, with a particular focus on girls.
Ride is survived by her partner of 27 years, Dr. Tam O’Shaughnessy, who she’d known since childhood when they played tennis against each other.
When giving her first press conference back in 1983, she was asked by a reporter “ Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” to which she answered “ How come nobody ever asks male astronauts those questions?”
Ride overcame the challenges of being a female astronaut and showed the entire world that she had the right stuff.
Share with us someone you know who has the right stuff or who has shattered the glass ceiling in their field!
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