Sally Kristen Ride (May 26, 1951–July 23, 2012)


Sally Kristen Ride was an American astronaut and physicist. Born in Los Angeles, she joined NASA in 1978; and in 1983, became the first American woman and the third woman to fly in space, after cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. She was also the youngest American astronaut to have flown in space, having done so at the age of 32.

Ride was a graduate of Stanford University, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in physics and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature in 1973, a Master of Science degree in physics in 1975, and a Doctor of Philosophy in physics in 1978 for research on the interaction of X-rays with the interstellar medium. She was selected as a mission specialist astronaut with NASA Astronaut Group 8, the first class of NASA astronauts which included women. After completing her training in 1979, she served as the ground-based capsule communicator (CapCom) for the second and third Space Shuttle flights, and helped develop the Space Shuttle’s robotic arm. In June 1983, she flew in space on the Space Shuttle Challenger on the STS-7 mission. She spent a total of more than 343 hours in space.

Sally Kristen Ride was born on May 26, 1951, in the Encino neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, the elder child of Dale Burdell Ride and Carol Joyce Ride née Anderson and had one sibling, Karen, known as “Bear.” Both her parents were elders in the Presbyterian Church. Her mother, who was of Norwegian descent, worked as a volunteer counselor at a women’s correctional facility. Her father served with the U.S. Army 103rd Infantry Division in Europe during World War II.

Ride grew up in the Van Nuys and Encino neighborhoods of Los Angeles. In 1960, when she was nine years old, the family spent a year traveling in Europe. In Spain, Ride learned how to play tennis for the first time. She enjoyed most sports, but tennis was her favorite; and at age 10, she was tutored by Alice Marble, a former world champion player. By 1963, Ride was ranked Number 20 in all of Southern California for girls aged 12 and under. She attended Encino Elementary School, Portola Junior High (now Portola Middle School), Birmingham High School and then Westlake School for Girls as a sophomore on a tennis scholarship, an exclusive all-girls private school in Los Angeles.

However, Ride resolved to become an astrophysicist. She graduated in June 1968, and then took a class in advanced math at Santa Monica College during the summer break.

Her friend Sue Okie was interested in going to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, so Ride applied there too. She was interviewed by Fred Hargadon, the dean of admissions, who was impressed by both her mental and her tennis ability. She was admitted on a full scholarship. She started classes at Swarthmore on September 18, 1968. She played golf and made Swarthmore’s field hockey varsity team. She won all six of her intercollegiate tennis matches to became the Eastern Intercollegiate Women’s Singles champion.

However Ride was homesick for California, and in those days before Title IX women’s tennis was not well-supported at the college level; Swarthmore only had four outdoor tennis courts but no indoor courts and she could not practice whenever it snowed. After three semesters at Swarthmore, Ride returned to California in January 1970, with the aim of becoming a professional tennis player.

Ride entered the University of California, at Los Angeles, where she enrolled in courses in Shakespeare and quantum mechanics, earning A’s in both subjects. She was the only woman at UCLA majoring in physics. Her foray into professional tennis eventually proved unsuccessful; after playing three matches in a single August morning her whole body ached the following day. She realized that far more effort would be necessary in order to reach the required level of fitness to become professional: she would need to practice for eight hours a day. She concluded that she did not have what it took to be a professional tennis player.

Ride next applied for a transfer to Stanford University as a junior. She graduated in 1973 with a Bachelor of Science degree in physics and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature. She then earned a Master of Science degree in physics in 1975 and a Doctor of Philosophy in 1978. Astrophysics and free-electron lasers were her areas of study. The subject of her doctoral dissertation was “the interaction of X-rays with the interstellar medium.”

In January 1977, Ride noticed an article on the front page of The Stanford Daily that talked about how the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was recruiting a new group of astronauts for the Space Shuttle program and wanted to recruit women. No women had previously been NASA astronauts, although the Soviet Union’s cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova had flown in space in 1963. Ride mailed a request for, and received the application forms.

Ride’s application was one of the 8,079 applications NASA received by the June 30, 1977, deadline. She then became one of 208 finalists. She was the only woman among the twenty applicants in the sixth group.

Her level of physical fitness impressed the doctors. They also placed her in a Personal Rescue Enclosure to see if she suffered from claustrophobia. She was asked to write a one-page essay on why she wanted to become an astronaut. Finally, she was interviewed by the selection committee. On January 16, 1978, she received a phone call from George Abbey, NASA’s director of flight operations, who informed her that she had been selected as part of NASA Astronaut Group 8. She was one of 35 astronaut candidates in the group, whom of which six were women.

Group 8′s name for itself was “TFNG.” The abbreviation was deliberately ambiguous; but for public purposes, it stood for “Thirty-Five New Guys.” Within the group itself, it was known to stand for the military phrase, “the fucking new guy,” used specifically to designate newcomers to a military unit. Officially, they were still only astronaut candidates who would not become fully-fledged astronauts until they completed their training.

Astronaut candidate training included learning to fly NASA’s T-38 Talon jet aircraft. Ride enjoyed flying so much she took private flying lessons to earn a private pilot’s license. She bought a part interest in a Grumman Tiger aircraft, which she flew recreationally on weekends. On August 31, 1979, NASA announced that the 35 astronaut candidates had completed their training and evaluation, and were now officially astronauts, qualified for selection on space flight crews.

In 1981, Ride began dating Steven Hawley, another one of the TFNGs. They moved in together, and considered themselves engaged. They were married on July 26, 1982, in the backyard of Hawley’s parents’ house in Salina, Kansas. Ride flew up from Houston for the occasion in her Grumman Tiger, and wore white jeans. The ceremony was jointly conducted by Hawley’s father Bernard, the pastor at the local Presbyterian church, and Ride’s sister Bear. It was deliberately kept low-key, with only parents and siblings in attendance.

Ride served as a ground-based capsule communicator (CapCom) for the second and third Space Shuttle flights, She helped develop the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (RMS), also known as the Canadarm or robot arm. She was the first woman to serve as a mission CapCom.

As the first American woman to fly in space, Ride was subjected to a tremendous amount of media attention. There were over five hundred requests for private interviews, all of which she declined. Instead, NASA hosted the usual pre-launch press conference on May 24, 1983. Ride was asked questions such as, “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?” and “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” She insisted that she saw herself in only one way—as an astronaut.

When the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on June 18, 1983, Ride officially became the first American woman to fly in space, and the third woman overall. She also became the youngest American astronaut in space, although there had been younger cosmonauts.

The purpose of the mission was to deploy two communications satellites: Anik C2 for Telesat of Canada and Palapa B1 for Indonesia. Both were deployed during the first two days of the mission. Now a celebrity, Ride, along with her STS-7 crewmates, spent the next few months after her flight on tour.

While she was still engaged on publicity tours, Ride was assigned to the crew of STS-41-G Mission. The mission lifted off from the KSC in Challenger on October 5, 1984. On this mission Challenger completed 132 orbits of the Earth in 197.5 hours, landing back at the KSC on October 13, 1984. During the mission, Ride carried a white silk scarf that had been worn by Amelia Earhart.

Ride was soon back in the astronaut rotation, training for her third flight mission, STS-61-I. This mission was scheduled to be flown no later than July 15, 1986, and was to deploy the Intelsat VI-1, INSAT 1-C communications satellites and carry the Materials Science Lab-4.

However, STS-61-M was cancelled after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster later that month. Ride was appointed to the Rogers Commission, the presidential commission investigating the Challenger disaster, and headed its subcommittee on operations. She was the only Space Shuttle astronaut and the only current NASA employee on the commission.

Following the Challenger investigation, Ride was assigned to NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. where she led NASA’s first strategic planning effort. She authored a report titled “NASA Leadership and America’s Future in Space.”

In May 1987, Ride announced that she was leaving NASA to take up a two-year fellowship at the Stanford University Center for International Security and Arms Control (CISAC), commencing on August 15, 1987.

Ride’s job was to research means by which nuclear warheads could be counted and verified from space, but the impending end of the Cold War made this a much less pressing issue. As the end of her fellowship approached, Ride hoped to secure a permanent position at Stanford.

Instead, on July 1, 1989, Ride became a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and director of the California Space Institute (Cal Space), part of the university’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Her research primarily involved the study of nonlinear optics and Thomson scattering. She remained director of Cal Space until 1996. She retired from UCSD in 2007 and became a professor emeritus.

From the mid-1990s until her death, Ride led two public-outreach programs for NASA—the ISS EarthKAM and GRAIL MoonKAM projects, in cooperation with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and UCSD. The programs allowed middle school students to request images of the Earth and the Moon.

She turned down offers from President Bill Clinton to become NASA Administrator, not wanting to leave California, but did agree to serve on the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

From September 1999 to July 2000, Ride was the president of the space news website, Space.com, a company that aggregated news about science and space on its website. She then established & became the president and CEO of Sally Ride Science. Sally Ride Science created entertaining science programs and publications for upper elementary and middle school students, with a particular focus on girls. Ride authored six books on space aimed at children, with the goal of encouraging children to study science.

When Ride delivered a speech at the National Science Teachers Association Conference in San Francisco on March 10, 2011,Many in the audience noted she looked ill. Alarmed, Ride scheduled a doctor’s appointment for the following day. A medical ultrasound revealed a tumor the size of a golf ball in her abdomen. A follow-up CT scan at UCSD confirmed a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. She immediately underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy to reduce the size of the tumor.

On August 15, 2011. On October 27, surgeons removed part of Ride’s pancreas, bile duct, stomach and intestine, along with her gallbladder.

Ride died on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, at her home in La Jolla. Following cremation, her ashes were interred next to those of her father at Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery, Santa Monica. Her papers are currently in the National Air and Space Museum Archives of the Smithsonian Institution.

In April 2013, the United States Navy announced that a research ship would be named in honor of Ride. The RV Sally Ride (AGOR-28) was christened on August 9, 2014 and delivered to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 2016. It was the first vessel in the research fleet to be named after a female scientist.

In 2022 a statue of Ride was unveiled outside the Cradle of Aviation Museum. In 2023 another statue of Ride was unveiled outside the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.