By Lauren Wiener
Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and a trailblazer for women in science, died July 23, 2012, from cancer. She was 61 years old.
Up until her death, Sally Ride was the president and CEO of Sally Ride Science. She founded this company, which creates science programs and publications for middle school and higher elementary school students, in 2001. The program provides support for boys and girls (mostly girls) who are interested in math, science, and technology. The company holds clubs for girls at schools all across the country and runs science camps on numerous college campuses.
Ride knew firsthand the importance of education and support for a young girl’s development. Born in Los Angeles, Calif., on May 26, 1951, to Dale Burdell Ride and Carol Joyce Anderson, Ride excelled in school and from a young age had a passion for science. However, she did not have much confidence in herself. In an interview with USA Today in 2006, when asked about attending a high school for girls, she said, “It was probably very important to my future. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself. I did well in math in high school, but I didn’t know if I would be able to do well at math in college. At Westlake, it was all girls in the trigonometry, calculus and chemistry classes. That environment gave me the confidence and motivation to declare a physics major in college.” She attended Westlake School for Girls on a tennis scholarship and was ranked as a national junior tennis player.
She enrolled in Swarthmore College but dropped out after her first year to explore becoming a professional tennis player. However, after three months of training she came to the realization that tennis was not written in the stars for her. She enrolled in Stanford University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and physics. She also earned a master’s and doctoral degree in physics.
In 1978, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began to recruit women scientists for the new Space Shuttle program. Until this time, only men were hired as astronauts. Ride, 27 at the time, jumped at the opportunity. Out of 8,000 applicants, she was chosen with 34 others to join the program. Only six women in total were chosen for astronaut training. During this period, she was also assigned to a team developing the Shuttle’s mechanical robot arm.
Sally Ride, at the age of 32, was selected as a crew member for the seventh Shuttle mission, making her the first American woman to travel in space. In a 2008 interview with NASA, she said, “The fact that I was going to be the first American woman to go into space carried huge expectations along with it. I didn’t really think about it that much at the time … but I came to appreciate what an honor it was to be selected to be the first to get a chance to go into space.”
On June 18, 1983, Ride embarked on the Challenger for a six-day mission with four other crew members. The mission was the first time a robotic arm (which Ride helped develop) was used in space.
Ride went on a Challenger mission once again on October 5, 1984. This time it was for eight days and included seven crew members, making it the largest mission at the time. When it was over, Ride had spent more than 343 hours in space. She left NASA in 1987, but without first establishing the agency’s Office of Exploration.
Post-NASA, Ride became a Science Fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Arms Control. In 1989, she became a professor of physics at the University of California in San Diego. She also became the director of the university’s California Space Institute. Her research centered on the theory of non-linear beam-wave interactions.
In the year 2001, Ride started the program, Sally Ride Science. Years before her death, during an interview with Inventors Digest magazine, when asked why women are less likely to pursue science and engineering, she said, “I think a lot of it is the way our society has developed science and engineering and who does it…. As she looks on the Web, she sees men as scientists. That’s not particularly appealing to tween girls…. We put a female face on math and science…. We try to introduce them to female role models. Make the girls appreciate you can be a scientist and be a normal person.”
At the time of her death, it was revealed that Sally Ride was a lesbian, becoming the first known LGBT astronaut. In an interview with New Times, her sister said that Ride never revealed her sexual orientation to the public because of a closely held commitment to her personal privacy. Ride never wanted to be famous. All she wanted to do was fly and soar in space.
She is survived by her mother, her sister, and her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy.
A trailblazer is defined as a pioneer leader in a field. Sally Ride will always be remembered as the first American woman in space who became a trailblazer for other young women.