Sally Ride, First U.S. Woman in Space, Dies of Cancer at 61

Astronaut Sally Ride
Astronaut Sally Kirsten Ride, the first American woman in space takes a photograph during her earth orbit in the Challenger shuttle STS-7 on June 1, 1983. Source: MPI/Getty Images

Sally Ride, the NASA flight engineer who became the first American woman in space when the shuttle Challenger roared into orbit in June 1983, has died. She was 61.

She died yesterday after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer, according to a statement from San Diego-based Sally Ride Science, a provider of educational programs that she founded in 2001. The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration confirmed her death on its website.

“Sally’s life showed us that there are no limits to what we can achieve, and I have no doubt that her legacy will endure for years to come,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said, “Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism -- and literally changed the face of America’s space program.”

The successful six-day mission officially designated STS-7 in 1983 gave Ride a place in U.S. history, one she accepted with mixed feelings. “It’s too bad this is such a big deal,” she said at one pre-flight NASA news conference. “It’s too bad our society isn’t further along.”

In an interview with NASA to mark the 25th anniversary of her flight in 2008, Ride recalled the “huge expectations” she felt for her pioneering flight. She said Christopher Kraft, NASA’s longtime flight director, called her into his office to “make sure I knew what I was getting into before I went on the crew. I was so dazzled to be on the crew and go into space I remembered very little of what he said.”

‘Private Person’

“Sally was a very private person who found herself a very public persona,” former astronaut Steve Hawley, who was married to Ride from 1982 to 1987, said in a statement. “It was a role in which she was never fully comfortable.”

Ride returned to space in October 1984 as mission specialist on STS 41-G, also aboard the Challenger. That eight-day mission included a second female astronaut, Kathryn D. Sullivan, who became the first woman to perform a spacewalk.

The Soviet Union put the first women in space, cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. According to NASA, a total of 55 women worldwide have flown in space.

Ride was scheduled for a third mission that was canceled following the 1986 disintegration of the Challenger 73 seconds after liftoff. She served on the presidential commission that investigated the accident.

After leaving NASA, she joined the faculty of the University of California-San Diego as a professor of physics and director of the California Space Institute.

Stanford Degrees

Sally Kristen Ride was born on May 26, 1951, in Los Angeles, the daughter of Joyce and Dale B. Ride. At Stanford University, she earned undergraduate degrees in physics and English in 1973, a master’s degree in science in 1975 and a Ph.D. in physics in 1978, according to the NASA biography.

NASA selected her for astronaut training in January 1978, part of the first class to include women. She and five other women joined 29 men in that class.

An advocate for better science and math education, Ride wrote five science books for children.

In addition to her mother, Ride’s survivors include Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years, and a sister, Karen Scott, a Presbyterian minister, who is known as Bear, according to the New York Times.

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