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Sally K. Ride: Blasting Through the Glass Ceiling

May 26, 1951 was a banner day not only for the Ride family of Encino, California, but also for the United States (although it would take a further thirty-two years for Americans to realize why). On that day, Sally Kristen Ride was born to Carol Joyce (Anderson) Ride and her husband Dale B. Ride.

Sally Ride’s parents were not aviators, nor were they explorers or scientists. Her mother was a counselor and her father was a professor specializing in Political Science. But the Rides encouraged their daughter’s sense of curiosity and helped ignite her interest in science. 

Ride graduated from the Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles in 1968, where she excelled academically and also in tennis. A student athlete, Ride was skilled enough to earn a partial scholarship from Westlake and after graduation contemplated becoming a professional tennis player.

Ride’s professional tennis career did not materialize and she decided to pursue dual degrees – a B.S. in Physics and a B.A. in English – at Stanford University; she graduated in 1973.  Consumed with a passion for science, Ride decided to further her studies and earned a Master of Science in 1975 and a Ph.d. in Physics in 1978.

“Sally was finishing her Ph.D. in physics at Stanford University in 1977 when she saw an article in the student newspaper saying that NASA was seeking astronaut candidates, and that for the first time, women could apply.”

Sally Ride Science

She would soon make history.

Ride turned her attention, with laser focus, to getting a job with NASA. But she didn’t want just any job there, she applied to be part of NASA’s Astronaut Group 8 – the first selection class in nine years. Group 8 represented the most diverse NASA selection ever – of the 35 trainees, three men were African-American, one was Asian American and six were women. Despite long odds and intense competition, Ride prevailed. She began astronaut training in 1978.

In August 1979, Ride completed her qualification work as a Mission Specialist on the Space Shuttle. Before she would be assigned to an STS mission, Ride served as an on-orbit Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM) for the second and third Space Shuttle missions, STS-2 [flown by Columbia, STS-2 marked the first time in history that a manned, reusable orbital vehicle returned to space for a second time] and STS-3 [STS-3 was the third flight for Columbia and the first shuttle launch with an unpainted external tank, and the only mission to land at the White Sands Space Harbor]

Then, at 7:33AM EDT on the 18 June 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman – and youngest American ever – in space.

STS-7 Launch

Ride was a Mission Specialist on STS-7 aboard Challenger, where she was joined by Robert Crippen, Fred Hauck, John Fabian, and Norm Thagard. The mission was remarkable not only because it carried the first American woman into space, but also because it carried the largest crew (five people) to fly in a single spacecraft up to that time, and it was the first shuttle mission to include members of NASA’s Group 8 astronaut class. STS-7 concluded with the orbiter returning to Edwards AFB on 24 June, 1983 at 6:57pm PDT after a mission lasting 6 days, 2 hours, 23 minutes, and 59 seconds covering 2.2 million miles during 97 orbits of the Earth.

“The thing that I’ll remember most about the flight is that it was fun. In fact, I’m sure it was the most fun I’ll ever have in my life.”

Sally Ride

Ride returned to space, once again aboard Challenger, on October 5, 1984 as part of the crew on STS-41-G. She made history for a second time as the first American woman to return to space.

Ride was scheduled for a third shuttle mission but her training was halted after the Challenger disaster on 28 January 1986. Due to her extensive experience with the Space Shuttle and her academic background and practical knowledge as an astronaut, Ride was selected to serve on the accident investigation board for both the Challenger inquiry in 1986 and the Columbia inquiry in 2003.

Ride left NASA in 1987 and took a position at Stanford in the university’s Center for International Security and Arms Control. She went on to teach Her intense interest in academics and her passion for space led her to become a professor of Physics at UCSD and then president of Space.com.

Understanding the critical importance of STEM education in general, and for young girls in particular, Ride and her partner Tam O’Shaughnessy founded Sally Ride Science. The company’s mission is, “to inspire young people in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and to promote STEM literacy.”

“As the first American woman in space, Sally did not just break the stratospheric glass ceiling, she blasted through it. And when she came back to Earth, she devoted her life to helping girls excel in fields like math, science and engineering.”

Barack Obama

Sally Ride died on July 23, 2012 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 61. Her legacy lives on through the efforts of Sally Ride Science at UCSD. Her story continues to inspire children and adults around the world.

Read more about Sally K. Ride and her trailblazing career.

You can also learn more from the videos below.

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