Heroes of Space: Sally Ride

Why the first American woman in space will be remembered forever.


In 1983, Sally Ride broke the gender barrier and captured the world’s imagination when she became the first American woman in history to venture where almost exclusively men had gone before: space. Soft-spoken and celebrity-shy, she was an unassuming hero to people around the globe.

Dr Sally Kristen Ride was born in Encino, California on 26 May 1951. She had an early interest in science and was also a nationally ranked tennis player, but after graduating from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in English and physics, and later a PhD in astrophysics, in 1975 and 1978 respectively, she decided to focus her attentions solely on science, and specifically space.

In 1978, after responding to an advert in the student newspaper, Ride was one of six women selected as astronaut candidates by NASA. Upon completion of a one-year evaluation period, she served as an on-orbit capsule communicator (CAPCOM) for the second and third Space Shuttle missions, STS-2 and STS-3.

In 1983, Ride was given the flight she dreamed of when she was selected as a mission specialist for STS-7 alongside Captain Robert Crippen, among others, becoming the first American woman to reach space and only the third worldwide after Russian cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1963 and 1982 respectively. The Challenger orbiter launched with Ride on board on 18 June 1983 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. During the mission the crew deployed satellites, and they were also given the chance to test the Canadian-built robotic arm Ride had been helping to develop on the ground, the Remote Manipulator System, to perform the first-ever satellite retrieval.

At the time of her first flight Ride was the youngest person to go into orbit at just 32 years old.

Ride flew with Crippen again aboard Space Shuttle Columbia’s STS-41-G mission in 1984, her second and last mission to space, with the notable mission accomplishment being the demonstration of potential satellite refuelling with a spacewalk. In 1986, following the loss of Space Shuttle Challenger, Ride served as part of the investigation committee that looked into the cause of the accident. She also went on to serve on the panel investigating the Columbia disaster in 2003, making her the only person to serve on both investigation teams.

In 1989, she took up a post as professor of physics and director of the University of California’s California Space Institute.

Despite shying away from the public eye, Ride was always keen to motivate young women to pursue careers in science, maths and technology. She went on to co-found Sally Ride Science with her partner Tam O’Shaughnessy in 2001 to do just that. The company continues to create entertaining science programmes and publications for children to this day.

Throughout her career Ride received many awards and accolades. She was inducted into both the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame as well as being awarded the NASA Space Flight Medal twice. Sadly, on 24 July 2012 she passed away at the age of 61 after losing a battle with pancreatic cancer, but her legacy will continue to inspire people around the globe.

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