Sally Ride, First American Woman In Space, Is Dead

Jul 23, 2012
Originally published on July 23, 2012 7:42 pm

In 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. She blasted off aboard Challenger, culminating a long journey that started in 1977 when the Ph.D. candidate answered an ad seeking astronauts for NASA missions.

In a lecture she gave at Berkeley, Ride said she saw the ad on Page 3 of the student newspaper.

"The moment I saw that ad, I knew that's what I wanted to do," she said.

Ride died today in La Jolla, Calif., after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer, her company said on its website.

She was 61.

According to her official biography, by the time Ride decided to apply to become an astronaut, she had already received degrees in physics and English and was on her way to a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University.

According to her NASA biography, Ride went back into space in October of 1984. She was assigned to another mission after that, but it was scrapped after the shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.

Steve Inskeep spoke to Ride after the Columbia disaster in 2003. She said despite the tragedies humans would continue their exploration.

"Studying whether there's life on Mars or studying how the universe began, there's something magical about pushing back the frontiers of knowledge," she said. "That's something that is almost part of being human and I'm certain that will continue."

Ride served on the presidential commission investigating the Challenger accident. After a stint as a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego, Ride founded Sally Ride Science. As NASA puts it, the company allowed her to "pursue her long-time passion of motivating girls and young women to pursue careers in science, math and technology."

Ride was born in Encino, Calif., on May 26, 1951. Karen O'Connor, who chronicled her early life in Sally Ride and the New Astronauts, described her as a "tomboy," racing her father for the sports section of the newspaper when she was 5 years old.

Becoming an astronaut had a bit to do with luck. The same year she started job hunting, NASA opened up its space program to women.

"Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism – and literally changed the face of America's space program," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. "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."

In an interview with NASA celebrating the 25th anniversary of her flight, Ride described the awesomeness of space.

"When the space shuttle's engines cut off, and you're finally in space, in orbit, weightless ... I remember unstrapping from my seat, floating over to the window, and that's when I got my first view of Earth. Just a spectacular view, and a chance to see our planet as a planet," she said.

"I could see coral reefs off the coast of Australia. A huge storm swirling in the ocean. I could see an enormous dust storm building over northern Africa ... just unbelievable sights."

Ride is survived by Tam O'Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years, her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear; her niece, Caitlin; and her nephew, Whitney.

Update at 7:08 p.m. ET. Inspiring Young Women:

All Things Considered's Audie Cornish just spoke to Capt. Bob Crippen, the crew commander on Ride's historic mission.

He said that among great women, Ride emerged as one of the best. She didn't seem like the type to go after breaking barriers, he said, but she did.

"[She] proved that young women could do anything they wanted to do," Crippen said.

We'll add audio of the full conversation at the top of this post in a little bit.

Update at 6:25 p.m. ET. The First Woman:

In its obituary, NASA quotes Ride remembering that first flight. She said everyone knew as soon as she was selected for the crew that she would be the first American woman in space.

She said there were "huge expectations" with that role, so she was taken to the office of then-NASA Flight Director Chris Kraft.

"He wanted to have a chat with me and make sure I knew what I was getting into before I went on the crew. I was so dazzled to be on the crew and go into space I remembered very little of what he said," Ride said.

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Finally, this hour, we remember Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. She died today at age 61 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride made history, blasting into space on the Challenger shuttle.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...eight, seven, six - we go for main engine start. We have main engine start and the ignition and lift off. Lift off of STS-7 and America's first woman astronaut. And the shuttle has pulled the power.

CORNISH: Captain Bob Crippen was her crew commander on that flight. Bob Crippen, welcome to the program.


CORNISH: First, I want to offer my condolences. And if you could tell us a little bit about Sally Ride. I know she was a member of the first class of astronauts to accept women in 1978. Did she talk to you about what that was like?

CRIPPEN: Well, we had six women that were selected in 1978 to join the astronaut office, and Sally was one of the best on that group, although they were all great. I had a chance to work with her for several years, until I have a chance to command a flight and I thought she'd be the perfect person to go fly with me.

CORNISH: Did you ever get the sense that she felt like she was breaking barriers?

CRIPPEN: Sally was not the kind of person that, I guess, would seem to go breaking barriers, but she obviously did. She broke through a lot of glass ceilings with that first shuttle flight and proved that young women could do anything they wanted to. And I was very proud of her. After she left NASA, she continued to go out and inspire young women to get - become interested in science and engineering, and that's something they tend to shy away from. But she was certainly a role model that - I believe she inspired a lot of young women.

CORNISH: And, of course, Sally Ride, by the time she went into space, she'd already earned a Ph.D. in physics. Tell us a little bit more about her personality.

CRIPPEN: Well, she was very personal, easy to get along with, fun to be with, and she fits right in with the crew. And she'd work like anybody would and molded well with the crew, which was important to me, that's one of the reasons I've selected her. Because when you go fly in space with a small group, it's important that everybody can work well together, and Sally certainly fit that model.

CORNISH: I've heard that. Obviously, astronauts spend a lot of time together. And I've also heard that sort of different personalities between astronauts who may be are rooted in being pilots versus those rooted in the sciences. What were some of the, I guess, personality traits that made her a good partner up in space?

CRIPPEN: Well, she could work with the team. That was the main thing. She didn't try to stand out; she tried to blend in. And that was what was important to me.

CORNISH: Bob Crippen, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CRIPPEN: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

CORNISH: That's Captain Bob Crippen. He spoke to us about Sally Ride. The astronaut died today at age 61.



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