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July 24th, 2012

Back to the heavens: Sally Ride, 1951–2012

Published on July 24th, 2012 | By: Eileen De Guire

Sally Ride on board the space shuttle Challenger in 1983. Ride, who was the first female astronaut, died yesterday at age 61. Credit: Wikimedia.

Sally Ride changed the world for women in STEM careers forever when she was selected to be the first female space shuttle crew member and made that historic first flight as a mission specialist on Challenger for STS-7 in June 1983. I was in graduate school when her selection to the crew was announced, and my fellow grad students and I realized she had shattered an important “glass ceiling.” As I learned more about her background as a physicist, it seemed that her talents and interests led her almost inevitably to the astronaut corps. The real example she set was to do just that—follow where your interests and talents lead, “barriers’ be damned. Did she even know there was a so-called “glass ceiling?”

Ride was the public face of an important evolution in the astronaut corps at NASA as one of six women selected in 1978 comprising the first class of female astronauts. Without this evolution and Ride’s historic flight, would Christa McCauliffe, for example, have aspired to be the first teacher in space? We will never know for sure, but I suspect not. (Readers will recall that McCauliffe died in the tragic Challenger explosion in 1985.)

After retiring from NASA in 1987, Ride became a science fellow at her alma mater, Stanford University, and joined the faculty of the physics department in 1989. She seemed to understand the import of her career beyond her example to girls thinking of STEM careers, too. In 2001 she founded a company, Sally Ride Science, “to pursue her long-time passion for motivating young girls and boys to stick with their interests in science and to consider pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.” The company develops classroom materials, festivals, science camps, teacher training and publications to promote Ride’s vision of encouraging children who are interested in STEM careers.

Ride died on July 23 at age 61 of pancreatic cancer. A full biography of her many accomplishments is posted on the Sally Ride Science website.

Sally—thanks for everything.


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