When the space shuttle Challenger launched on June 18, 1983, astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space.
At 32 years old, she was also the youngest American to ever rocket into space.
But Ride didn’t stop there. The following year, she embarked on another flight, becoming the first American woman to leave the atmosphere twice. Later she took on a new mission – to inspire young people to learn about physics, space and science.
Although the 1983 Challenger mission launched her to fame, Ride’s groundbreaking career began long before her historic space flight.
Ride was fascinated by science from a young age and went on to complete a bachelor’s degree in Physics and English at Stanford University. But the pivotal moment in her education came in 1977 as she was completing her PhD in astrophysics at Stanford.
Ride saw a NASA advertisement in the Stanford newspaper, calling for students to apply for the space program. For the first time, women could put their names forward. Ride mailed NASA a letter asking for an application and ended up beating thousands of other applicants.
She became a finalist for the selection of 35 new astronauts – ultimately becoming one of six women selected in January 1978.
In astronaut school, Ride trained as a capsule commander and later became an expert in using the robotic arms on shuttles.
Breaking barriers on the Challenger missions
Ride was appointed to be a mission specialist on the space shuttle Challenger for the historic flight in 1983, launching into space alongside four male crewmembers.
She was not the first woman in space, though – that title belongs to Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. The six-day Challenger mission took place 20 years later – almost to the day – of Tereshkova’s launch to be the first woman in space.
Ride broke the atmospheric glass ceiling again in 1984, and was assigned to a third space flight, but that was canceled following the Challenger disaster in 1986, in which an explosion shortly after takeoff claimed the lives of seven astronauts including the teacher and astronaut Christa McAuliffe.
Following the tragedy, Ride served on the Rogers Commission, which investigated the explosion. She also helped investigate the space shuttle Columbia tragedy in 2003 in which another 7-person crew was killed, making her the only person to serve on both investigation commissions.
In a 2008 interview with CNN, Ride described how her space flights gave her new perspective on our planet.
“You can’t get it just standing on the ground, with your feet firmly planted on Earth,” she said. “You can only get it from space, and it’s just remarkable how beautiful our planet is and how fragile it looks.”
Sally Ride’s lasting legacy
Although Ride hung up her astronaut suit after two space missions, she continued to contribute to NASA, the space program and the field of astrophysics.
Ride went on to have an award-winning career at the University of California, San Diego, as a physics professor and as the founder of Sally Ride Science, an organization that aims to inspire young people in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
She also launched a career as a children’s book author, writing books to teach kids about science such as “To Space and Back” and “Exploring Our Solar System.”
“She decided she wanted to write a children’s book that would describe what it was really like to be launched in a rocket and fly in space, to be weightless, to look down at Earth,” her co-author and childhood friend Susan Okie told CNN.
“She enjoyed talking to kids in classrooms because she said they asked questions everyone wanted to ask but was afraid to, such as, how do you go to the bathroom in space?” Okie said.
“I think all those classroom appearances were what got her interested in school curricula, how science is taught to kids, and ultimately, how to get more of them, especially girls, interested in learning it.”
After a long battle with pancreatic cancer, Ride died in 2012 at the age of 61. The following year, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.
“Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism – and literally changed the face of America’s space program,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a statement at the time of her death.
NASA officials remembered Ride not only for her space flights but also for contributing to strategic and long-term planning that informed NASA’s modern human spaceflight programs, as well as serving as a role model for other women in space science.
“Sally lived her life to the fullest, with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, commitment and love. Her integrity was absolute; her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless,” read a statement on the website of Sally Ride Science.
Today, Sally Ride Science continues to provide better resources for science teachers in elementary and middle schools, and Ride’s story continues to inspire young women to embark on careers in STEM fields.