Sally Ride: The First American Woman In Space

On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride wrote a new chapter in the history of space exploration when she became the first American woman to orbit the Earth. She embarked on her mission aboard the space shuttle Challenger and thus began her place in the annals of space history.

Sally Ride, first US woman in space, on the space shuttle Challenger in 1983
Sally Ride, first US woman in space, on the space shuttle Challenger in 1983. Image via NASA/ Mental Floss.

But, how did she get there? What were the journey and the accomplishments that led her to become a pioneer for women in the world of science and technology?

Early Life

Born on May 26, 1951, in Los Angeles, California, Sally Kristen Ride displayed an interest in science from an early age. In a time when women were often discouraged from pursuing scientific fields, Ride was fortunate to have parents who encouraged her curiosity. Her father, a political science professor, and her mother, a counselor, fostered an environment where questions were welcomed, and this sparked her pursuit of knowledge.

Ride was an exceptional student, particularly excelling in mathematics and the physical sciences. In her teenage years, she became a nationally ranked tennis player, displaying a competitiveness and drive that would serve her well in her future career.

After graduating from high school, Ride attended Swarthmore College but dropped out after three semesters to pursue a professional tennis career. However, she quickly realized that her true calling lay elsewhere, and she returned to academia, enrolling at Stanford University.

Here, Ride earned a bachelor’s degree in Physics and English in 1973, followed by a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in Physics in 1975 and 1978, respectively.

Breaking Barriers: Ride Joins NASA

In 1977, a unique opportunity presented itself. NASA, previously a male-dominated institution, began to seek women to join their astronaut ranks. Ride spotted a newspaper advertisement that called for applicants with backgrounds in engineering, mathematics, or physical sciences.

Recognizing an opportunity to mesh her passion for physics with her fascination for space exploration, she applied immediately.

Out of 8,000 applicants, Ride was one of six women chosen by NASA in 1978, breaking the gender barrier in the American space program. Her acceptance into NASA’s rigorous astronaut training program was a significant step towards gender equality in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields.

The training was intense and pushed the limits of physical endurance and mental fortitude. The astronauts-in-training had to undergo water survival training, gravity and weightlessness training, and complete over 1,000 hours of flight training. Ride excelled in the program and earned her place on the Challenger space shuttle.

Space Shuttle Challenger: The Historic Mission

On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride made history when the Challenger shuttle launched with her aboard, making her the first American woman and the third woman overall to go to space. The mission, titled STS-7, had a crew of five and lasted for seven days.

The crew of the STS-7 space shuttle Challenger mission in 1983
The crew of the STS-7 space shuttle Challenger mission in 1983. Front row, left to right: Sally K. Ride (mission specialist), Robert L. Crippen (commander), and Frederick H. Hauck (pilot). Back row, left to right: John M. Fabian and Norman E. Thagard (mission specialists). Image via NASA/ Wikipedia.

Their main objective was to deploy two communications satellites, and this mission marked the first use of the Remote Manipulator System to deploy and retrieve a satellite. Ride was instrumental in this task, working the shuttle’s robotic arm to release the satellites into orbit. The mission was a resounding success, not just for Ride, but for the entire team.

On the day of the launch, Ride recalled being both excited and focused, not fully processing the magnitude of the event until after the mission. When Challenger touched back down at Edwards Air Force Base after completing 97 orbits around the Earth, Sally Ride had secured her place in history.

Legacy And Impact

Ride flew again on the Challenger in 1984, but her third planned mission was canceled after the tragic Challenger explosion in 1986, which claimed the lives of seven astronauts. In the aftermath of this disaster, Ride served on the Rogers Commission, the body appointed to investigate the accident.

She was the only person to serve on both the Challenger and the Columbia accident investigation boards, demonstrating her expertise and respect in the field.

After leaving NASA in 1987, Ride became a passionate advocate for science education, particularly for girls and young women. She co-authored several children’s books on space and founded Sally Ride Science, a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring young people in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and promoting STEM literacy.

Ride’s accomplishments have helped break down barriers for women in STEM fields, making it easier for those who have come after her. She showed young girls everywhere that their dreams had no limits and that they could reach for the stars—quite literally. Sally Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, but her influence continues to live on.

Ride’s journey from a curious child with a love for the sciences to becoming a symbol of possibility for young girls around the world was marked by determination, resilience, and courage.

Her story serves as a shining example of how one woman’s ambitions can transcend societal barriers, redefine conventions, and open the door for generations to come. She was not just the first American woman in space; Sally Ride was a pioneer, an educator, an inspiration, and a beacon for all who dream of exploring the cosmos.


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