When Sally Ride became the first American woman to soar into space, she captured the nation's imagination as a symbol of the ability of women to break barriers. But Ride's historic flight represented just one aspect of a remarkable and multifaceted life. She was also a physicist, a science writer, and an inspirational advocate for science literacy. After retiring from NASA, Ride used her high profile to champion a cause she believed in passionately: motivating young people, especially girls, to stick with their interest in science and to consider pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.
As a young girl, Sally was fascinated by science. She credited her parents with encouraging her interests. Sally grew up playing with a chemistry set and a telescope. She also grew up playing sports. She competed in national junior tennis tournaments and was good enough to win a tennis scholarship to Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles.
In 1977, Sally already had degrees in physics and English from Stanford University and was finishing her Ph.D. in physics when she saw an ad in the Stanford student newspaper saying that NASA was looking for astronauts. Up until then, most astronauts had been military pilots, and they all had been male. But now NASA was looking for scientists and engineers, and was allowing women to apply. Sally immediately sent in her application, along with 8,000 other people. From that group, 35 new astronauts, including six women, were chosen. NASA selected Sally as an astronaut candidate in January 1978.
Sally’s astronaut training included parachute jumping, water survival, weightlessness, and mastering all of the space shuttle's systems. During two shuttle missions, she worked on the ground as a communications officer, relaying messages from mission control to the shuttle crews. She was part of the team that developed the robot arm used by shuttle crews to deploy and retrieve satellites.
After a year of training and evaluation, Sally was selected as a mission specialist for mission STS-7 aboard the shuttle Challenger. When Challenger blasted off from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on June 18, 1983, Sally soared into history as the first American woman in space.
During the mission, the crew deployed satellites for Canada and Indonesia, performed the first formation flight of the shuttle with a free-flying satellite, and conducted numerous scientific experiments. The mission lasted 147 hours before Challenger landed on a lakebed runway at Edwards Air Force Base, California, on June 24.
Sally's second flight, STS-41G, was also aboard Challenger, which launched from Kennedy Space Center on October 5, 1984. During the 197-hour mission, the crew deployed the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite and conducted scientific observations of Earth.
In June 1985, Sally was assigned to the crew of another shuttle mission, but training was halted in January 1986 when Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff, killing all seven crewmembers. Sally served on the Presidential Commission investigating the tragedy. Later, after the shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry in 2003, Sally again was named to the commission probing the disaster. She was the only person to serve on both panels investigating the nation's space shuttle tragedies.
After the Challenger investigation, Sally was assigned to NASA headquarters as special assistant to the administrator for long-range and strategic planning. There she wrote an influential report entitled "Leadership and America's Future in Space" and became the first director of NASA's Office of Exploration.
Sally retired from NASA in 1987, and became a science fellow at the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University. In 1989, she joined the faculty at the University of California, San Diego, as a professor of physics and director of the California Space Institute.
In 2001, she co-founded her own company, Sally Ride Science, to pursue her longtime passion for motivating girls and boys to study science and to explore careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. The company creates innovative classroom materials, classroom programs, and professional development training for teachers.
Long an advocate for improved science education, Sally co-wrote seven science books for children, including The Third Planet (co-authored with Tam O'Shaughnessy), which won the American Institute of Physics Children's Science Writing Award.
Sally was a member of the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology and the National Research Council's Space Studies Board, and she served on the boards of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and the NCAA Foundation. She also served on the boards of the Aerospace Corporation and the California Institute of Technology. Sally was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame, the California Hall of Fame, the Aviation Hall of Fame, and the Astronaut Hall of Fame. In 2012, she was honored with the National Space Grant Distinguished Service Award. And in 2013, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.