DR. SALLY RIDE
1951 – 2012
Trailblazing First American Woman In Space
When Sally Ride became the first American woman to soar into space, she captured the nation’s imagination as a symbol of the ability of women to shatter barriers. But Sally’s historic flight represented just one aspect of a remarkable and multifaceted life. She was also an athlete, a physicist, a science writer and an inspirational leader in science education.
In 2001 Sally joined with her life partner, Dr. Tam O’Shaughnessy, and three like-minded colleagues to start a company called Sally Ride Science. The goal was to inspire girls and boys of all backgrounds in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and to promote science literacy. After Sally’s death, the company became a nonprofit based at UC San Diego. Today Sally Ride Science carries on her legacy with innovative STEM programs under the direction of UC San Diego Extension.
Sally Kristen Ride was born in Los Angeles on May 26, 1951. Even as a young girl, she was drawn to science. Her father, Dale, a social studies teacher, and her mother, Joyce, a homemaker, were puzzled by her fascination with science, but they strongly encouraged her. They gave her a chemistry set and a telescope and got her a subscription to Scientific American. Dale and Joyce impressed upon Sally and her younger sister, Bear, that they could achieve anything they set their minds to.
A gifted athlete, Sally loved to play sports, especially tennis. She competed in junior tennis tournaments around Southern California and earned a partial tennis scholarship to the elite Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles. There she encountered an inspirational teacher, Dr. Elizabeth Mommaerts, who nurtured her interest in science.
After graduating from high school in 1968, Sally headed east to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where she studied physics and played on the women’s basketball and field hockey teams. She was also the top player on the women’s tennis team, and in 1969, she won the Eastern Collegiate Tennis Tournament. But she grew more and more homesick for California, so after two semesters, she returned home.
Sally had been wondering if she could succeed as a pro tennis player. Back in Los Angeles, she practiced tennis for hours every day while also taking classes at the University of California Los Angeles. Ultimately she opted for physics instead. Later, when asked why she decided not to pursue a tennis career, she would answer jokingly, “My forehand.” She also said, “I realized … that my education, science, was more important to me than tennis was.”
In the fall of 1970, Sally transferred to Stanford University, where she was one of only a few women majoring in physics. She also was the top player on the women’s tennis team. She graduated in 1973 with a double major in physics and English, and continued at Stanford to earn her master’s degree in physics in 1975.
Reaching for the stars
Sally was finishing her PhD in physics in 1977 when she saw an article in the Stanford student newspaper saying that NASA was hiring new astronauts. Up to that time, most astronauts had been military pilots, and all of them were men. Now NASA was looking for scientists and engineers to serve as mission specialists on the space shuttle, and for the first time, women could apply. Sally decided on the spot that she wanted to fly in space, and she dashed off a letter asking for an application.
NASA received more than 8,000 astronaut applications. After months of waiting, Sally got the news that she had been selected, along with five other women, as part of a group of 35 new astronaut trainees. The recruits called themselves the Thirty-Five New Guys, and they formed strong bonds of friendship as they went through their training, which included parachute jumping, water survival, weightlessness, radio communications and navigation. Sally also helped to develop a robotic arm that space shuttles and later the International Space Station would use to launch and retrieve satellites.
Sally’s intellect, athletic ability and coolness under pressure allowed her to excel during astronaut training. In 1981, she was chosen as the first female CAPCOM (capsule communicator), the voice of Mission Control talking to astronauts in space. She guided astronauts on missions STS-2 (1981) and STS-3 (1982).
Then on April 19, 1982, NASA’s flight crew director summoned Sally into his office and told her she had been selected as the first women to be part of a shuttle crew. She would serve as a mission specialist for STS-7 aboard shuttle Challenger.
Training for her first mission lasted more than a year. Sally and her four male crewmates – Commander Robert Crippen, pilot Frederick Hauck, and fellow mission specialists John Fabian and Norman Thagard – worked through endless simulations to learn how to perform their tasks and cope with potential problems. Sally especially enjoyed the part of their training that required flying in sleek T-38 jets, sometimes upside down, at 500 mph. In her spare time, she took flying lessons and earned her pilot’s license.
In the runup to her historic flight, Sally was the focus of a media frenzy. She appeared on the covers of Newsweek and other magazines. Reporters peppered her with sexist questions, but she managed to respond with humor and grace. During one news conference, she was asked, “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” Sally laughed and gestured to her crewmate Hauck, replying, “Why don’t people ask Rick those questions?”
Shattering NASA’s gender barrier
When she blasted off aboard Challenger on June 18, 1983, Sally became the first American woman—and, at 32, the youngest American—in space. During the six days of mission STS-7, she deployed and retrieved a satellite with the robotic arm. The crew also performed a variety of scientific experiments. The mission lasted 147 hours before Challenger landed at Edwards Air Force Base, California, on June 24.
Sally performed her duties with calm competence, demonstrating to the world below that women belonged on space missions. She later said of the experience, “The thing that I’ll remember most about the flight is that it was fun. In fact, I’m sure it was the most fun I’ll ever have in my life.”
Her second shuttle flight made history as the first space mission with two female crew members. When Challenger blasted off for STS-41G on Oct. 5, 1984, Sally was joined by Kathryn Sullivan as well as five male crewmates – Crippen (once again serving as commander), Jon McBride, David Leetsma, Marc Garneau and Paul Scully-Power. During the eight-day mission, Sullivan became the first American woman to walk in space.
The crew conducted scientific observations of Earth and deployed a satellite designed to investigate how Earth absorbs and then reflects energy from the sun. After 197 hours of flight,Challenger landed at Kennedy Space Center on Oct. 13.
Sally was training for a third mission when Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986, killing all seven crew members. She was named to the presidential commission investigating the disaster, and she helped bring to light the fact that NASA management knew the shuttle’s O-rings could fail in cold temperatures.
Later, when shuttle Columbia broke up on reentry in 2003, Sally again was appointed to the investigative panel, becoming the only person to serve on the commissions investigating both space shuttle tragedies.
After the Challenger disaster, shuttle flights were temporarily grounded. Sally moved to NASA headquarters in Washington as the first director of the space agency’s Office of Exploration, where she authored an influential report on America’s future in space, known as the Ride Report. She retired from NASA in 1987.
Time of transition
Sally’s personal life was also undergoing changes. She had married fellow astronaut Steve Hawley in 1982, but they later divorced. Sally began a relationship with Tam O’Shaughnessy, a longtime friend who was teaching college biology in Atlanta. The two had met when they were preteens playing on the junior tennis circuit in Southern California.
After leaving NASA, Sally spent two years as a fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation working to verify the nuclear warhead arsenal of the Soviet Union. Then in 1989, she accepted a position as professor of physics at UC San Diego. She also served as director of the University of California’s California Space Institute. Tam joined Sally in La Jolla, and the two lived there as partners until Sally’s death in 2012.
Sally and Tam began working together to write science books for young people. Their six books included “The Third Planet: Exploring the Earth from Space,” which won the American Institute of Physics’ Children’s Science Writing Award in 1995.
Sally and Tam shared a concern about the lack of women in science and engineering careers. To narrow the gender gap, they came up with the idea of starting an education company.
In 2001 they got together with three colleagues with different areas of expertise to found Sally Ride Science. Joining Sally and Tam, who has a doctorate in school psychology, were Karen Flammer, a UC San Diego physicist; Terry McEntee, Sally’s longtime executive assistant; and Alann Lopes, a tech expert. Sally served as CEO, pitching investors and taking a hands-on role in all aspects of the company.
STEM inspiration for the next generation
Sally had seen after her historic spaceflight that her example was a powerful tool for inspiring young people, especially girls, in science. One of her goals in starting Sally Ride Science was to make sure girls and boys of all backgrounds could see role models who looked like them.
Over the years, Sally Ride Science created acclaimed STEM programs that reached students and educators across the country. The company hosted more than 100 science festivals, published 90 science books for upper elementary and middle school students, and trained hundreds of educators on how to incorporate diverse role models into science lessons.
Sally Ride Science also ran two NASA educational outreach programs. Sally Ride EarthKAM, founded by Sally in 1994, lets students request images of Earth from a camera on the International Space Station. GRAIL MoonKAM allowed students to capture photos of the lunar surface from cameras on twin satellites orbiting the Moon.
During these years, Sally played a key role in the emerging national conversation on the importance of diversity and inclusion in science education and careers. She was also an influential voice in space policy. She served as a member of the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology and the National Research Council’s Space Studies Board, as well as the boards of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the California Institute of Technology.
Sally died on July 23, 2012, after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Three years later, Sally Ride Science found a new home at UC San Diego, with Tam serving as executive director.
Sally received many honors during her life, including induction into the Astronaut Hall of Fame, the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Aviation Hall of Fame. She also received the Jefferson Award for Public Service, the Lindbergh Eagle and the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award. She was twice awarded the NASA Space Flight Medal, and in 2012 she was honored with the National Space Grant Distinguished Service Award.
Following her death, Sally and another pioneering astronaut, Neil Armstrong, received the Space Foundation’s 2013 General James E. Hill Lifetime Space Achievement Award. Also in 2013, the Stanford School of Engineering named Sally a Stanford Engineering Hero. In 2014, Women in Aviation International (WAI) inducted her into its International Pioneer Hall of Fame.
A year after Sally’s death, President Barack Obama awarded her the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was accepted by Tam. Obama said during the award ceremony, “As the first American woman in space, Sally did not just break the stratospheric glass ceiling, she blasted through it. And when she came back to Earth, she devoted her life to helping girls excel in fields like math, science and engineering.”
In 2016, the Navy commissioned a state-of-the-art research vessel named for Sally. The R/V Sally Ride, operated by Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, sails around the world on expeditions to study the health of the oceans and the impact of climate change. In 2018, the U.S. Postal Service honored Sally with a Forever stamp. And in 2019, Stanford University renamed a student housing complex Sally Ride House.
In 2021, the U.S. Mint announced that Sally would be among the first five women honored under the American Women Quarters Program. The new Sally Ride quarter features George Washington on the “heads” side and Sally on the reverse side.