RIP Sally Ride … My First Hero

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Sally Ride, America’s first female astronaut, communicates with ground controllers from the flight deck during the six-day mission of the Challenger. Image and caption courtesy NASA

I was nine years old when I first wanted to be an astronaut, and my first hero was Sally Ride. I looked up to her as a woman, a scientist, and an astronaut. Sally’s enthusiasm for life, boundless energy, intelligence, and passion for science were constant beacons throughout my formative years. Sally Ride was a trailblazer both for NASA and for working women everywhere. She showed women that they could achieve the same status as their male peers. Sally Ride’s integrity never faltered, even as a woman in a male-dominated profession for much of her career.

You can understand just how sad I was to hear that Sally Ride passed away today, July 23, 2012, after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Sally is survived by her 27-year partner, Dr. Tam O’Shaughnessy, and her mother, Joyce. Before her official obituary today, Sally had always referred to her partner as “a good friend,” never feeding rumors or speculation as to her sexual preferences, keeping her private life … private.

Born May 26, 1951, Sally Ride grew up wanting to be a scientist. She received four degrees including her PhD in physics from Stanford University in 1977. After answering a newspaper ad for astronaut applicants, Sally Ride became one of the first six women to join the NASA astronaut corp in 1978, beating out most of the other roughly 8000 applicants. During her pre-flight career, she served as Capsule Communicator (CapCom) and worked on developing the shuttle’s famous robotic arm.

A 1983 portrait of astronaut Sally K. Ride before STS-7. Image courtesy NASA

On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space on STS-7 aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. During her historic flight, she became the first person to ever retrieve a satellite with the robotic arm that she had helped design. Her second flight on STS-41G, also aboard Challenger, took off on October 5, 1984. STS-41G was the first flight to carry a full seven person crew and was tasked with deploying a satellite and performing scientific Earth observations. Sally had spent 343 hours in space and was eight months into the training for her third flight when disaster struck NASA on January 28, 1986. After the Challenger accident, Sally served on the Challenger Accident Investigation Board and was tasked with reviewing mission operations. When the review was finished, she was permanently reassigned to NASA headquarters as special assistant to the administrator for long-range and strategic planning and ultimately became the first Director of the Office of Exploration. In 2003, Ride became the only member of the Columbia accident review board who had also served during the Challenger review.

Listen to Sally describe in her own words what it meant to be the first female American in space and her memories of her experiences in space. This JPL interview was conducted on the 25th anniversary of her historic first flight.

Sally Ride retired from NASA in 1987, and spent much of the next 14 years as a physics professor at UC-San Diego. In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science, a company dedicated to encouraging boys and girls to peruse STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers. Her company creates exciting and engaging classroom materials, programming, and professional development for teachers in hopes of inspiring children to pursue their scientific dreams. She has written or co-written seven different science books for children.

Sally Ride’s life was filled to the brim with adventure and inspiration. Her legacy will be no different. Her company will continue to inspire children for years to come to pursue their dreams, and her memory will live as a constant reminder to everyone that dreams really do come true. We here at GeekMom want to thank you, Sally, for being an inspiration to us all.

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