Pioneering NASA Astronaut Sally Ride Dies At Age 61

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Sally Kristen Ride, Ph.D., an astronaut and physicist who in 1983 at the age of 32 became the first American woman (and at that time, the youngest person ever) to enter space, died today at age 61. The cause was pancreatic cancer, a disease which she had battled for the past 17 months, according to a statement on her official website.

Ride accomplished a great deal in her relatively short life. Born on May 26, 1951 in Los Angeles, Ride has credited her parents with encouraging her interest in science from an early age — according to her official bio, Sally “grew up playing with a chemistry set and a telescope.” She attended LA’s private Westlake School for Girls on a tennis scholarship, and went on to earn four degrees from Stanford by the time she was 27: A bachelor of arts in English, a bachelor of science in physics, a master’s in physics, and a doctorate in physics.

While finishing up her Ph.D., Ride saw an ad in the Stanford student newspaper saying that NASA was looking for astronauts (pretty cool job listing, eh?) According to Ride’s website, it was an interesting time for NASA — the program was changing from a mostly military focus to one that prioritized pure science and math:

“Up until then, astronauts had been military test pilots — and they all had been male. But now NASA was looking for scientists and engineers, and was allowing women to apply.”

NASA says that more than 8,000 men and women applied to the space program that year. 35 people were accepted, six of whom were women — and one of them was Sally Ride.

After serving as a ground-based communicator on the second and third Space Shuttle flights in the early 1980s (which is what she’s doing in the feature photo on this story) Ride herself went to space twice: Mission STS-7 aboard the shuttle Challenger, which lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on June 18, 1983, and the STS 41-G, which launched from Kennedy Space Center on October 5, 1984. In all, Ride spent more than 343 hours in space.

After retiring from NASA in 1987, Ride dedicated a great deal of time to encouraging children, especially girls, to pursue science and technology. In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science, which is aimed at making entertaining science programs and publications for upper elementary and middle school students.

President Obama has issued the following statement on Ride’s death:

“Michelle and I were deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Sally Ride. As the first American woman to travel into space, Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model. She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars and later fought tirelessly to help them get there by advocating for a greater focus on science and math in our schools. 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. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Sally’s family and friends.”

The loss of Ride at such a young age is a shame, and her presence will certainly be missed. Hopefully other women in science and tech will be inspired to continue holding up her mantle going forward.