Sally Ride: First American Woman In Space4 min read

One of six women selected in NASA’s 1978 astronaut class, Sally Ride was the first of them to fly. When she rode aboard the space shuttle Challenger as it lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on June 18, 1983, she became the first American woman in space and captured the nation’s attention and imagination as a symbol of the ability of women to break barriers. As one of the three mission specialists on the STS-7 mission, she played a vital role in helping the crew deploy communications satellites, conduct experiments and make use of the first Shuttle Pallet Satellite. Her pioneering voyage and remarkable life helped, as President Barack Obama said soon after her death last summer, “inspire generations of young girls to reach for the stars” for she “showed us that there are no limits to what we can achieve.”

On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space when the space shuttle Challenger launched on mission STS-7.

As one of the three mission specialists on the STS-7 mission, she played a vital role in helping the crew deploy communications satellites, conduct experiments and make use of the first Shuttle Pallet Satellite. In this image, Dr. Ride sits in the aft flight deck mission specialist’s seat during deorbit preparations.

This week marks the anniversary of two significant events in the history of space exploration–the flight of Valentina Tereshkova 50 years ago on June 16 and of Sally Ride 30 years ago on June 18. With the exception of the single flight by Tereshkova, human spaceflight during the early years of the space race was the province of men only. Women demonstrated their ability to withstand the rigors of space missions, and indeed a hardy group of American women pilots passed the same medical tests as the Mercury 7 with excellent scores. However, NASA policy at the time required qualification as a military test pilot. The policy, originally established by President Eisenhower in December 1958, stood until the mid-1960s when the first scientist-astronauts were selected. Although the Eisenhower selection policy did not specifically discriminate on the basis of gender, the fact that there were no women military pilots

Sally Ride was born in Los Angeles, California, on May 26, 1951. Fascinated by science from a young age, she pursued the study of physics, along with English, in school. As she was graduating from Stanford University with a Ph.D. in physics, having done research in astrophysics and free electron laser physics, Ride noticed a newspaper ad for NASA astronauts. She turned in an application, along with 8,000 other people, and was one of only 35 chosen to join the astronaut corps. Joining NASA in 1978, she served as the ground-based capsule communicator, or capcom, for the second and third space shuttle missions (STS- 2 and STS-3) and helped with development of the space shuttle’s robotic arm.

After her selection for the crew of STS-7, and thereby becoming the first American woman in space, Ride faced intense media attention. But, Ride had no time for many of the questions the press asked her; questions like “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” She saw herself first and foremost as an astronaut and a scientist, and felt that “one thing I probably share with everyone else in the astronaut office is composure.” Talking about her fellow astronauts in the class of 1978, she said, “We’re all people who are dedicated to the space program and who really want to fly in the space shuttle. That’s a common characteristic that we all have that transcends the different backgrounds.” (It is worth noting that the astronaut class of 1978 also included the first three African-Americans and the first Asian-American to serve in the astronaut corps.) Her commander on STS-7, Bob Crippen, agreed that Sally was more than capable of flying in space, saying, “I wanted a competent engineer who was cool under stress. Sally had demonstrated that talent.”

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Ride continued her career with NASA after her historic flight, flying on a second shuttle mission (STS-41G) in October 1984. She later served on the presidential commission that investigated the Challenger accident and led NASA’s strategic planning effort in the mid-1980s. Retiring from NASA in 1987, she became a science fellow at the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University and, in 1989, joined the University of California-San Diego as a professor of physics and director of the California Space Institute. In 2001, she founded her own company, Sally Ride Science, to pursue her passion for motivating girls and boys to study the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math. The company creates innovative classroom materials, programs and professional development training for teachers. In 2003 she also served on the presidential commission investigating the Columbia accident (the only person to serve on both commissions). In addition to this work, she wrote a number of science books for children, including The Third Planet, which won the American Institute of Physics Children’s Science Writing Award in 1995. Following a 17-month long battle with pancreatic cancer, Sally Ride died on June 23, 2012, leaving behind a heroic legacy.

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Source: NASA History Office

 

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