Spaceflight Pioneer Sally Ride Loses Battle With Pancreatic Cancer

Sally Ride was the first U.S. female astronaut to fly in space. Ride rode fire to orbit twice on missions STS-7 and STS-41G on the space shuttle. She lost a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer on July 23, 2012 – she was 61. Image Credit: Christopher Paluso and San Diego Air and Space Museum

Tributes flooded in from around the world this evening to honour America’s first woman in space, Sally Ride, who has died following a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 61. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden tonight described Ride as one of the nation’s “finest leaders, teachers and explorers”, paid homage to her uncommon ability to break gender barriers with grace and professionalism and declared that “her star will always shine brightly”. Meanwhile, Deputy Administrator Lori Garver called Ride “a personal and professional role model”, whose “spirit and determination will continue to be an inspiration for women everywhere.”

Born of Norwegian ancestry, Sally Kristen Ride entered the world in Los Angeles on 26 May 1951. In her early years, she aspired to become a professional tennis player and, for a time, at Westlake High School, was team captain. After graduating from Westlake, she entered Stanford University to study physics and English. Whilst there, Billie Jean King watched her play and advised her to leave college and turn professional. Ride rejected King’s advice and continued her studies, receiving a degree in 1973, a master’s in 1975 and a doctorate in astrophysics and free electron laser physics in 1978. Receipt of her PhD, incidentally, came only days before she began the long drive to Houston, Texas, to begin training as one of America’s first six female astronaut candidates.

Ride handled all of the duties and responsibilities of her male counterparts including that of capsule communicator (CAPCOM). Here Ride is seen serving in this role on STS-2. Photo Credit: NASA

“I saw an ad in the Stanford University student newspaper…that NASA was accepting applications,” Ride told the space agency’s oral historian. “They wanted applications from women, which is presumably the reason the Center for Research on Women [at Stanford] was contacted and the reason they offered to place the ad in the newspaper.” In October 1977, the 26-year-old Ride was summoned to Houston as part of a 20-strong interview group. “We spent a week,” she recalled, “going from briefing to briefing, from dinner to medical evaluations, psychological exams and individual interviews.” Three months later, she was selected for astronaut training and expressed surprise at the intensity of the public attention. “Stanford arranged a press conference on the day of the announcement,” she said. “I was a PhD physics student. Press conferences were not a normal part of my day!”

After training, one of Ride’s most important duties was the Shuttle’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS) – the Canadian-built mechanical arm – and with fellow astronaut candidates John Fabian and Norm Thagard she spent much time working on its development and testing. Little could the three of them have known that they would travel into space together in the summer of 1983. Although six women had been chosen by NASA, many expected Ride or Judy Resnik to be the first to fly. Fellow astronaut Rhea Seddon, in a NASA oral history, remarked that Ride’s technical duties, which included the RMS and Capcom duties in Mission Control, marked her out for an early flight assignment.

Ride’s first space mission, STS-7, saw several satellites deployed and by mission standards would be viewed as routine. However, the inclusion of Sally Ride to the crew would serve as a watershed event that would alter the makeup of shuttle crews for the duration of the program’s 30-year history. Photo Credit: NASA

The call came in April 1982, when Ride was called into the office of George Abbey, the director of Flight Crew Operations at the Johnson Space Center (JSC). He had earlier chaired the astronaut selection committee and an invitation to his office was unusual. Abbey told her that she would be aboard STS-7 and JSC Director Chris Kraft reminded her that she would receive much press attention and offered his unflinching support. “It was a very reassuring message,” Ride said, “coming from the head of the space centre.”

In some cynical areas of the media, it was speculated that she had been added only because the Soviet Union planned to launch its second female cosmonaut, Svetlana Savitskaya, in August 1982. However, STS-7 Commander Bob Crippen vehemently disagreed. “She is flying with us because she is the very best person for the job,” he told journalists at the time. “There is no man I would rather have in her place.”

Sally Ride established “Sally Ride Science” to inspire children to become interested in science and space exploration. The organization had the MoonKAM experiment mounted to the GRAIL spacecraft that was NASA’s first planetary mission (in this case Earth’s Moon) with instruments fully dedicated to education and public outreach. Photo Credit: Sally Ride Science

There was some awkwardness, however. STS-7 crewmate Rick Hauck recalled that it was the first time he had ever engaged in professional discussions with a woman over the Shuttle’s toilet and Ride herself recalled being approached for advice by NASA engineers over whether a make-up kit should be flown and how many tampons should be carried! “They came to me,” laughed Ride, “figuring that I could give them advice! It was about the last thing in the world that I wanted to be spending my time training on, so I didn’t spend much time on it at all.”

Her STS-7 flight in June 1983 was noteworthy in that it featured the rendezvous with West Germany’s Shuttle Pallet Satellite and Ride used the RMS arm extensively, as well as serving as the flight engineer for the mission. Within months, in November, she and Crippen were named to a new crew, which became STS-41G and flew in October 1984. However, Crippen was already training for another mission and for the first six months he was unable to join his 41G crewmates. As the only other flight-experienced crew member, Ride found herself taking on the mantle of ‘surrogate commander’. “I had flown with Crip,” she said, “so I knew how he liked things done and I knew what his habits were. On launch and re-entry, I knew what he wanted to do and what he wanted the pilot and the flight engineer to do, so our crew started launch and re-entry simulations without Crip.”

When the mission got underway in October 1984, it involved the deployment of a large satellite to monitor Earth’s radiation budget, the operation of a powerful synthetic aperture radar and the first American EVA to feature a woman, Kathy Sullivan. By the summer of the following year, Ride was back in training again; this time to fly STS-61M in July 1986, which would deploy a large Tracking and Data Relay Satellite. The destruction of Challenger in January eliminated those plans and Ride was tapped to sit on the panel of the presidential inquiry into the disaster.

A year later, in 1987, she led and co-authored NASA’s strategic planning document, ‘Leadership and America’s Future in Space’ (popularly known as ‘The Ride Report’), which provided a roadmap for future US exploration in space. It emphasised a ‘Mission to Planet Earth’, a permanently-staffed space station, a lunar base and a human voyage to Mars. The vision of Ride’s group foresaw a 30-man base on the Moon by 2010 and the construction of a permanent habitat on the Red Planet, sometime in the early 2020s. It is perhaps one of her lasting legacies that the Mission to Planet Earth proved a tremendous success, that a permanently-staffed space station is today in orbit and that lunar bases and human voyages to Mars have finally found their way back onto NASA planning charts.

Sally Ride’s orbital experiences would serve to fire the imagination of a generation of women who would enter careers in aerospace. Her technical knowledge was viewed as far more important than her gender however in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster – she became part of the committee that reviewed the cause of the accident. Photo Credit: NASA

Ride married fellow astronaut Steve Hawley in July 1982 in a ceremony officiated by her sister, the Presbyterian Reverend Karen Ride and his father, Dr Bernard Hawley. Their marriage ended in 1987. “Sally was a very private person,” Hawley said in a statement, issued this evening, “who found herself a very public persona. It was a role in which she was never fully comfortable. I was privileged to be a part of her life.” In 1987, Ride left NASA to join the University of California at San Diego as a professor of physics and director of the California Space Institute.

In 2001, she founded her own company, Sally Ride Science, to pursue her passion of motivating girls and young women to follow careers in the sciences, engineering and mathematics. Her long-time partner Dr Tam O’Shaughnessy – a childhood friend who met Ride when they were both aspiring tennis players – later became the chief operating officer and executive vice president of Sally Ride Science. As America and the world bids farewell to a trailblazing pioneer – less than six months after the untimely death of Janice Voss and only weeks since the tragic death of Alan Poindexter – perhaps Ride’s greatest gift is that she inspired thousands of women to believe in their dreams.

“Sally dedicated her life to the mission of opening the world of science to girls,” said Lon Rains, chair of the Coalition for Space Exploration. Steve Hawley added that she “allowed many young girls across the world to believe they could achieve anything if they studied and worked hard. I think she would be pleased with that legacy.”

Ride will be remembered not only as the first female U.S. astronaut but also as a strong supporter for increased science education for children, especially girls. Ride went on to author five books focused on the subject. Photo Credit: NASA


  1. THANK YOU for an excellent article & most fitting memorial for this trailblazing lady!!!

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  3. Thank you so very much for your moving tribute to a very special person!! I’m not an American, but I still can appreciate what Sally Ride did during her lifetime! Sometimes, some things are so important and meaningful, that go beyond national barriers(as is the case with the whole space program itself)!

    An excellent article as always, by Ben Evans and!!

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