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Sally Ride

May 26, 1951

Portrait of Sally Ride

Sally Ride was an American astronaut and physicist. In 1983, she became the first American woman and the third woman in history to go into space. Ride was also the youngest American astronaut to travel to space, venturing to deploy two communications satellites at the age of 32. During her life, Ride received many awards, was passionate about improving science education, and was an advocate for young women in science.

Sally Kristen Ride was born in Los Angeles on May 26, 1951. Growing up, Ride was interested in science and was also a nationally ranked tennis player. She originally attended Swarthmore College for three semesters and also took classes at the University of California, Los Angeles. During her junior year, Ride transferred to Stanford University and later graduated with dual degrees in English and physics. She continued at Stanford for graduate education in physics and earned a master’s degree in 1975 and her PhD in 1978. At Stanford, she researched astrophysics and free electron lasers.

In 1977, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) placed a newspaper ad in the Stanford student newspaper advertising for young scientists to serve as mission specialists. Ride applied to NASA and was one of only thirty-five people selected out of 8,000 applicants. In 1978, she was one of only five women selected for NASA Astronaut Group 8. She graduated training in 1979 and became eligible to work as a mission specialist. Before her first spaceflight, she served as the ground-based capsule communicator for the second and third Space Shuttle flights. She also assisted in developing the Space Shuttle’s “Canadarm” robot arm.

In 1983, Ride was the first American woman in space. She was one of five crew members aboard the space shuttle Challenger STS-7 and served as the flight engineer. During the one-week flight, she launched two communication satellites, operated the shuttle’s mechanical arm, and conducted experiments. In 1984, Ride went on another shuttle mission aboard the STS-41G. During this mission, she spent eight days conducting scientific observations of the Earth and working on refueling techniques for the shuttles.

After her two missions, Ride was named to the Rogers Commission, which was in charge of investigating the Challenger disaster and later the Columbia disaster. Following the investigations, Ride took a position in Washington, D.C. leading a team defining NASA’s future direction and strategic planning. Ride wrote that a lunar station would combine “adventure, science, technology, and perhaps the seeds of enterprise.” In 1987, she left to work at Stanford University Center for International Security and Arms Control. She later became a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego and also the director of the California Space Institute.

Sally Ride was an advocate for science education and encouraged young girls to become interested in science. Ride led two science public outreach programs for NASA, the ISS EarthKAM and GRAIL MoonKam. She was also co-founder, president, and CEO of Sally Ride Science which created entertaining science programs for upper elementary and middle school students. Ride wrote or co-wrote seven children’s books about space which encourage kids to study science.

Sally Kristen Ride died on July 23, 2012, at age 61. Despite battling pancreatic cancer, Ride continued her outreach and education work up until her death. Ride received numerous awards and honors throughout her lifetime including the National Space Society’s von Braun Award, the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award, the Space Foundation’s General James E. Hill Lifetime Space Achievement Award, and NASA’s Space Flight Medal. She was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Although Ride kept her personal life private, she was also acknowledged as the first lesbian astronaut. She maintained a long-time relationship with Tam O’Shaughnessy. President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Ride with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and O’Shaughnessy accepted the award.

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