Sally Ride, First American Woman in Space, Dies at 61
Sally Ride monitors control panels from the pilot’s chair on the flight deck of the Challenger shuttle on June 25, 1983. Floating in front of her is a flight procedures notebook. Photo by Apic/Getty Images.
Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, died on Monday after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 61. She made history when she rode the space shuttle Challenger into orbit in 1983, but she was also a NASA adviser, a lifelong educator, and a founder of Sally Ride Science, a venture dedicated to inspiring and teaching young people, especially girls, about science and space.
In this video by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, Ride reflects on her shuttle flights and the changes to space exploration since.
NewsHour Science correspondent Miles O’Brien knew Ride personally. Here’s what he had to say about her.
Help us understand the significance of Sally Ride’s legacy.
Miles: The lead line of her obituary of course will say “the first U.S. woman in space.” That’s a shorthand way we will remember her, and that’s the snapshot version. But when you look at what Sally Ride contributed to the space program, it’s hard to overstate her influence. She was on the commission that investigated the Challenger accident; she was on the commission that investigated the Columbia accident, and she was instrumental in NASA policy in significant key ways in an unparalleled fashion. She was an amazing contributor to NASA as a flyer in space, but she was also a committed scientist engaged in the technicality of what she loved, and she cared deeply about connecting the public with the space agency and space.
The saddest thing is, there were people who wished — me included — that she would become the first female administrator of NASA. Unfortunately, we never got the chance to see that.
— Miles O’Brien
And then later in life, we saw her effort to bring girls into the fold of science and mathematics. She’s been an inspiration to girls, to women. And whenever a president, a national administrator, or whenever the agency called upon her for help, she was there for them. That’s an extraordinary thing.
The saddest thing is, there were people who wished — me included — that she would become the first female administrator of NASA. Unfortunately, we never got the chance to see that. But her imprint on NASA is there — her fingerprints are all over that agency.
What was Sally Ride’s vision for space?
Miles: Sally Ride saw space as a tool for inspiring young people. She’s a hard core scientist, she’s an astrophysicist, she’s a person who really was the real deal when it came to space science, and yet she never for a moment neglected or overlooked that this was a tool for inspiring a new generation. She wrote books aimed at that clientele, aimed at boys and girls, but primarily girls.
She saw space as a way to keep kids engaged in these subjects. She saw space as part of the overall well-being of our country. To her, bringing humans to space was in some ways a means to an end, in a way that it provided a means for young people to be engaged.
As a person, what was she like?
Miles: I had the good fortune to have her at my house when I was living in Atlanta. It was for a reception for the Challenger Learning Centers, an outreach foundation founded by surviving members of the Challenger families. She was very involved in that foundation and that charity for many years. We had quite a great assortment of people there, including June Scobee Rodgers, the widow of Challenger Space Shuttle Commander Dick Scobee.
Sally Ride walked in, and she owned the room. She was one of those people. In our world, my little world of space, she’s a rock star. She wasn’t a “small talk” person, she wasn’t a glad-hander. She reminds me a little bit of Neil Armstrong in that way. She was focused on the technicalities, the realities of space, she was thinking the big thoughts, yet she was a very gracious and kind person. And when she found an ally, like me, for her cause, she was relentless. She called me, and she wanted to talk to me about her ideas; she saw this as her life’s calling. She was the first woman in space, but her career was so far beyond that. You think of the shuttle days, and as interesting as it is, it’s a small part of what she accomplished in her life, for the space program and for young people interested in technical careers.
If Neil Armstrong represents the embodiment of the pinnacle of the Apollo era, the moon-race era, then Sally Ride is the personification of the shuttle era… She was the towering star of the shuttle program. In the era where astronauts were nameless, Sally Ride was the exception.
— Miles O’Brien
Sally Ride was the real stuff. She really was. In every sense of the word, she was the embodiment of what NASA in the post-Apollo era about. If Neil Armstrong represents the embodiment of the pinnacle of the Apollo era, the moon-race era, then Sally Ride is the personification of the shuttle era.
When you think about the Apollo era, there’s all these larger than life characters — John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, and there’s mythology associated with it. In the shuttle era, they didn’t mint any of those heroes. NASA didn’t try to portray them as larger than life. The great exception to that is Sally Ride. She was the towering star of the shuttle program. In the era where astronauts were nameless, Sally Ride was the exception.
Mike Melia and Rebecca Jacobson contributed to this report.