Environment & Science

Sally Ride, first American woman in space, dies at 61

Sally Ride poses with fellow NASA astronauts Robert Crippen (C, first row), Frederick Hauck (R), John Fabian and Norman Thagard.
Sally Ride poses with fellow NASA astronauts Robert Crippen (C, first row), Frederick Hauck (R), John Fabian and Norman Thagard.
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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.

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

Born in Encino, Ride attended Westlake School for girls, now known as Harvard-Westlake School.

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.

She was aiming for a career either in science... or on the tennis court.

“I was always interested in science, though," she told KPCC's Kitty Felde almost 10 years ago on AirTalk. "Even when I was 8 or 9, I was fascinated by the planets. I loved oceanography."

While studying physics at Stanford she spotted an ad from NASA — the space agency wanted new astronauts. She was among just six women chosen for the program. After five years of training, Sally Ride flew on the space shuttle Challenger in 1983.

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.

Ride served on the Presidential Commission investigating the 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."

"I hope that there's someone out there that can say, 'My goodness, if it wasn't for Sally Ride, I wouldn't be doing this fantastic thing with science'," says Kent Kresa, chairman of the board of trustees at Cal Tech. Ride served on the board alongside him for 11 years. "I think that's the legacy she'd like to have."

Through the program, Ride led a NASA project that let middle school students photograph Earth from space. She also wrote several children’s science books.

Ride died of pancreatic cancer. She’s survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy, her mother Joyce and her sister, Bear.