Sally Ride, who blazed a trail into orbit as the first US woman in space, died on Monday of pancreatic cancer. She was 61.
Ride died at her home in the San Diego suburb of La Jolla, said Terry McEntee, a spokeswoman for her company, Sally Ride Science. She was a private person and the details of her illness were kept to just a few people, she said.
Ride flew into space on the space shuttle Challenger on June 18, 1983, when she was 32. Since then, 42 other US women followed her into space.
“Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model. She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars,” US President Barack Obama said in a statement.
“People around the world still recognize her name as the first American woman in space, and she took that title seriously even after departing NASA,” Eileen Collins, the first female space shuttle commander, said in a statement.
When Ride first launched into space, feminist icons such as Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda were at Kennedy Space Center and many wore T-shirts alluding to the pop song with the refrain of the same name: Ride, Sally Ride.
In 1978, NASA included women in the astronaut corps, selecting Ride and five other women to join the club, which had been dominated by male military test pilots. Ride beat out fellow astronaut candidates to be the first US woman in space. Her first flight came two decades after the Soviets sent a woman into space and less than a year after a second Soviet woman flew.
“On launch day, there was so much excitement and so much happening around us in crew quarters, even on the way to the launch pad,” Ride recalled in a NASA interview for the 25th anniversary of her flight in 2008.
Ride flew in space twice, both times on Challenger in 1983 and in 1984, logging 343 hours in space. A third flight was canceled when Challenger exploded in 1986.
She was on the commission investigating that accident and later served on the panel for the 2003 Columbia shuttle accident, the only person on both boards.
Born on May 26, 1951, in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, Ride became fascinated with science early on, playing with a chemistry kit and telescope. She also excelled in tennis and competed in national junior tournaments.
She earned bachelor’s degrees in physics and English from Stanford University in 1973 and a master’s in 1975. She saw an ad in the student newspaper calling for scientists and engineers to apply to become astronauts. She was chosen in 1978, the same year she earned her doctorate in physics from Stanford. Ride was married to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley from 1982 to 1987.
One of Ride’s last legacies was allowing middle school students to take their own pictures of the moon using cameras aboard NASA’s twin GRAIL spacecraft in a project spearheaded by her company.
“Sally literally could have done anything with her life. She decided to devote her life to education and to inspiring young people. To me, that’s such a powerful thing. It’s extraordinarily admirable,” said Maria Zuber, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who heads the GRAIL mission.