Sally Ride, First American Woman in Space, Dies at 61
America's first woman in space, physicist Sally Ride, died today at her home in California at the age of 61 after a bout with pancreatic cancer, according to news reports. President Obama expressed sadness and admiration for "a national hero and a powerful role model" in a brief statement. NASA administrator Charles Bolden praised the woman who "literally changed the face of America's space program."
And across the country, women old enough to remember that day -- June 18, 1983, when Ride boarded the Challenger for what would be the first of two space shuttle flights -- are saying a sad and quiet, "Thank you." Ride, Sally Ride.
Coming of age in an era where astronauts were viewed as the embodiment of a nation's identity, ingenuity, and derring-do, Ride was the first of of a handful of women who redefined what it meant to have what Tom Wolfe called "The Right Stuff: for space travel."
"[T]he idea here (in the all-enclosing fraternity) seemed to be that a man should go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie the reflexes, the experience, the coolness to pull it back at the last yawning moment, and to go up again the next day and the next day and every next day..."
Sally Ride went up on the space shuttle in 1983 and again in 1984, joined by Kathryn Sullivan. They were followed by Judith Resnick, Mae Jemison, and 38 others, and that "all-enclosing fraternity" was a boy's club no more. Each of these women was a pioneer before joining the astronaut corps, having built distinguished careers in science and medicine. Ride, for her part, had earned a Ph.D. in physics at Stanford in 1978 and joined NASA the same year.
If she had been the first U.S. woman astronaut, it would have been enough, but she did so much more: She participated in the inquiries into the tragic explosions of the Space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, and helped write new rules for human space travel.
Beyond that, she used her fame to educate and inspire a nation that is still woefully behind in developing science and technology talent. She founded a company, Sally Ride Science Camps, to help get girls hooked on science. As a physics professor at the University of California, San Diego, she spearheaded the EarthKAM project, which allows middle schoolers to take pictures in space using a remote-controlled camera installed on the International Space Station.
In a 2008 NASA interview, Ride reflected on what it was like to go into space for the first time, and the ways in which she carried her experiences into the rest of our life's work. In that interview, she spoke about the changes that she has seen in Earth's atmosphere and its landforms as a result of climate change:
She was teaching and inspiring to the end. She expressed faith that a national commitment to science education and innovation would help us divine solutions to climate change. "I'm optimistic that we're going to fine...I think the future of the planet is in our hands."
Ride, Sally Ride. May your legacy prove that your optimism was justified.
All images: NASA.gov.
More on Sally Ride:
- NASA's photo gallery: First Woman in Space
- Ride's 2008 testimony on the importance of STEM education before the House Education and Labor Committee
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