NASA

Flying high. Ride on the flight deck of the Challenger in 1983.

Sally Ride, First American Woman to Fly in Space, Dies

Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, died on Monday of pancreatic cancer. She was 61 years old.

Ride is best known for her extraterrestrial exploits, but she was also a scientist. She received her doctorate in physics from Stanford University in 1978, and once her career as an astronaut ended, she became a physics professor at the University of California, San Diego, and director of the California Space Institute in 1989. Her first article to appear in Science also debuted the same year. Written as the Cold War was winding down, Ride and her co-authors proposed a method to verify the presence of nuclear-armed missiles on ships and submarines.

Many of Ride's other papers focused on laser physics (for examples, see here, here, and here.) Her scientific colleagues remember her fondly. Phillip Sprangle, a physicist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., co-authored a number of papers with Ride. "She was a very good physicist on top of everything else, a very, very unique person. She was extremely intelligent—but she had something besides that. It was a type of charisma; she was just nice to be with. And really I can't say that about too many other people."

As the first American woman to fly in space, Ride faced some unique challenges. The New York Times highlighted some of these challenges in its obituary:

Speaking to reporters before the first shuttle flight, Dr. Ride - chosen in part because she was known for keeping her cool under stress — politely endured a barrage of questions focused on her sex: Would spaceflight affect her reproductive organs? Did she plan to have children? Would she wear a bra or makeup in space? Did she cry on the job? How would she deal with menstruation in space?

Ride was clearly disappointed in the media focus on her sex. The New York Times' obituary reports her response at a NASA news conference: "It's too bad this is such a big deal. It's too bad our society isn't further along." These experiences may have motivated Ride's later commitment to developing STEM education, with a focus on educating girls. The Washington Post reports:

After her space career, Ms. Ride devoted herself to bringing the excitement of science to children - especially girls. She helped found the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, based in Alexandria, and in 2001 launched Sally Ride Science, an educational company. She also co-wrote several books for children.

In 2005, Ride was one of the authors of a letter to Science addressing remarks by Lawrence Summers, then-president of Harvard University, asserting that genetic differences predispose men to perform better in math and scientific fields. "As leaders in science, engineering, and education, we are concerned by the suggestion that the status quo for women in science and engineering may be natural, inevitable, and unrelated to social factors," she and her co-authors wrote.

President Barack Obama's statement on Ride's passing acknowledged her status as "a national hero and a powerful role model" and highlighted her contributions to STEM education. Representative Ralph M. Hall (R-TX), chair of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, did the same: "Sally's legacy will be reflected in all of the young girls she inspired to pursue careers in science and engineering."

It's clear that Ride was an inspiration to many young women. A thread on the female-specific section of the social news Web site Reddit included comments from contributors reminiscing about her impact on their lives, like this one from rudesby: "I remember when I was in middle school, my sister and I met her at an event to encourage girls to get into the sciences. She signed my astronaut teddy bear. Now my sister's going for her PhD in electrical engineering and I'm starting my biology major."

Posted in People & Events, Space