This week we have said goodbye to Dr. Sally K. Ride, the first American woman to make a spaceflight and a passionate promoter of science and engineering education for girls, who passed away on July 23 after a seventeen month battle with pancreatic cancer.
Born in California in 1951, young Sally was fascinated by science and had the good fortune to be encouraged in her interests by her parents, at a time when a woman’s place was still considered to be in the home. She was also an avid sports player, who competed at the national level in junior tennis tournaments and also played varsity tennis. In 1977, Sally had already obtained Bachelors and Masters degrees in Physics, as well as a Bachelors degree in English, from Stanford University and was about to finish her Ph.D. in physics, when she applied for NASA’s first intake of female astronauts. Until that time, astronauts had mostly been test pilots—and they all had been male. But for the forthcoming Space Shuttle program, NASA needed scientists and engineers to operate the new vehicle and conduct experiments on orbit and allowed women to apply as Mission Specialist astronauts. In January 1978, 35 new astronauts were chosen to join the astronaut corps: this group included Sally Ride and five other women.
After serving as an astronaut communicator (Capcom) in Mission Control for the STS- 2 and STS-3 Shuttle missions, Dr. Ride’s first spaceflight was aboard the STS-7 mission in June 1983. Her flight came almost exactly twenty years to the day after Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space, on board the Vostok-6 space mission.
But where Tereshkova’s flight was essentially a propaganda vehicle to proclaim the equality of women with men in the communist system, the women astronauts selected by NASA in 1978 were the real trailblazers for the participation of women in spaceflight. Since Sally’s first flight, 42 other American women have flown in space, in addition to female astronauts from Canada, European nations, Japan and, most recently, China.
Sally’s historic flight into space made her a household name around the world and she became a symbol of the ability of women to break through the barriers of male-dominated careers. At the STS-7 launch prominent women’s activists, including Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem attended, many wearing T-shirts bearing the legend “Ride, Sally Ride”, taken from the refrain of William Pickett’s 1967 version of the song Mustang Sally.
The six-day STS-7 mission deployed two communications satellites and performed a number of science experiments. During this mission, Ride became the first women to deploy and retrieve a satellite with the Space Shuttle’s robotic arm, which she had herself helped to design.
In October 1984, Dr. Ride returned to space on Shuttle Mission, STS-41G, an 8-day flight that deployed the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite, conducted scientific observations of Earth, and demonstrated potential satellite refuelling techniques. One of Sally’s colleagues on this flight was Dr. Paul Sully Power, the first Australian-born person to make a spaceflight. His flight suit, in loan from NASA, can be seen in the Museum’s Space exhibition.
On both these missions, Sally flew aboard the Shuttle Challenger. Dr. Ride was in training for a third flight when the Challenger accident occurred in 1986 and she was transferred to a role on the Rogers Commission that investigated the disaster. After the investigation was completed, Sally was assigned to NASA headquarters as special assistant to the Administrator for long-range and strategic planning, where she wrote an influential report entitled “Leadership and America’s Future in Space,” and became the first director of NASA’s Office of Exploration.
After resigning from NASA in 1987, Ride became a science fellow at the Centre for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University, before joining the University of California San Diego as a professor of physics and director of the California Space Institute, in 1989.
Dr. Ride used her high profile as a former astronaut and academic to champion a cause in which she passionately believed—inspiring young people, especially girls, to develop and maintain an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and to consider pursuing careers in these fields. In 2001 she founded her own company, Sally Ride Science, to pursue this aim through the creation of innovative classroom materials, classroom programs, and professional development training for teachers. Dr. Ride also co-wrote seven science books for children (To Space and Back;Voyager; The Third Planet; The Mystery of Mars; Exploring Our Solar System; Mission Planet Earth; and Mission Save the Planet) and initiated and directed NASA-funded education projects including EarthKAM and GRAIL MoonKAM. In 2004, Sally visited Australia and presented an inspirational talk on her life and career at Sydney Observatory.
Sally was a member of the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology and the US National Research Council’s Space Studies Board. She was the only person to serve on the commissions investigating both the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle disasters, and also served on a number of other technical, policy and academic boards. Dr. Ride received numerous honours and awards, including induction into several “Halls of Fame”. She received the Jefferson Award for Public Service, the von Braun Award, the Lindbergh Eagle, and was twice awarded the NASA Space Flight Medal. In 2012 she was honoured with the National Space Grant Distinguished Service Award.
The museum’s E.A and V.I. Crome Collection of aviation and space philately and memorabilia contains several items relating to Sally Ride’s two space missions. Perhaps the most interesting item is this souvenir badge, which celebrates Dr. Ride’s place as “America’s First Lady in Space”. This badge is part of a collection of 28 Space Shuttle souvenir badges, covering the first 25 Shuttle flights between 1981 and 1986 (up to the loss of the Challenger). They were donated by museum benefactor Ernie Crome in 1986. Badges like this were popular collectables throughout the life of the Shuttle program, celebrating launches, landings and special mission highlights, such as the flight of the first female astronaut.
With the passing of Sally Ride, the world has lost a powerful role model and advocate for women in science and technology, and a passionate educator, who sought to imbue young people with her love of science and exploration. US President Barack Obama paid the following tribute: “Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model. She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars.” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, himself a former astronaut, said Ride “broke barriers with grace and professionalism — and literally changed the face of America’s space program. The nation has lost one of its finest leaders, teachers and explorers.”