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Sally Ride, an American hero, lost her seventeen month battle with pancreatic cancer in La Jolla, California on July 23, 2012 at the age of 61.
Ride is best known for being the first American woman to travel to space. She was born May 26, 1951 in Encino, California. In the 1980s, Ride saw an ad in the student newspaper at Berkeley for astronauts. In an interview much later she recalled “the moment I saw that ad, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.” At the time she had already received degrees in Physics and English and was pursuing her Ph.D. in physics at Stanford University.
Ride was not the first woman in space – that honor goes to Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova who traveled to space in 1963. However, Ride was the first American who traveled to space and, in 1983, was the youngest person to travel into space at the age of 32. She inspired young women across the country with her historic trip and her work afterward.
Although Sally Ride was the first American woman to go into space, she was not the first to try. In the 1960s when the Mercury 7 was created the Mercury 13, a group of thirteen women training to go into space, was also created. The Mercury 13 included Jerrie Cobb, Bernice Steadman, Janey Hart, Jerri Truhill, Rhea Woltman, Sarah Ratley, Jan and Marion Dietrich, Myrtle Cagle, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Jessen, Jean Hixson and Wally Funk. These women went through all of the same trainings and tests that the men of the Mercury 7 did, and some of them even scored higher on these tests. However, NASA did not open the opportunity of space travel for women until the year that Ride applied.
Sally Ride spent 343 hours in total in space. Her first mission was on the Challenger in 1983 and then she returned to space in October of 1984. Years later Ride described her view of the planet. “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. 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.”
She was scheduled for another mission a few years later but it was cancelled after the 1986 Challenger disaster. She joined the board that investigated the Challenger shuttle explosion as well as the Columbia disaster in 2003. However, the cancelled missions did not distort Ride’s view of human exploration of the stars. She later said, “studying whether there’s life on Mars or studying how the universe began, there’s something magical about pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. That’s something that is almost part of being human and I’m certain that will continue.”
After leaving NASA in the late 1980s Ride became a professor of physics at the University of California in San Diego. She also founded Sally Ride Science which was a foundation that permitted her to “pursue her long-time passion of motivating girls and young women to pursue careers in science, math and technology.”
Ride’s former Commander on her first mission, Captain Bob Crippen stated, “[Ride] proved that young women could do anything they wanted to do.” President Obama agreed in a statement released shortly after her death claiming, “as the first American woman to travel into space, Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model.”
However, Sally Ride was not always comfortable with the attention. Former husband and fellow former astronaut Steve Hawley stated, “Sally was a very private person who found herself a very public persona. It was a role in which she was never fully comfortable.” Indeed, she was so private that most did not know that she had broken another NASA record as the first gay/bisexual woman in space. Ride’s obituary states that she left behind her partner of twenty-seven years, Tam O’Shaughnessy. Although never revealed before, this new tidbit of information about her very private life provides just another dimension to the heroic and fascinating life of Sally Ride.
Image Courtsey of x-ray delta