Sally Ride

The First American Woman in Space

Sally Ride Communicating with Ground Control
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Sally Ride (May 26, 1951 – July 23, 2012) became the first American woman in space when she launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 18, 1983, on board space shuttle Challenger. A pioneer of the final frontier, she charted a new course for Americans to follow, not only into the country’s space program, but by inspiring young people, especially girls, to careers in science, math, and engineering.

Also Known as

Sally Kristen Ride; Dr. Sally K. Ride

Growing Up

Sally Ride was born in a suburb of Los Angeles in Encino, California, on May 26, 1951. She was the first child of parents, Carol Joyce Ride (a counselor at the county jail) and Dale Burdell Ride (a political science professor at Santa Monica College). A younger sister, Karen, would add to the Ride family a few years later.

Her parents soon recognized and encouraged their first daughter’s early athletic prowess. Sally Ride was a sports fan at a young age, reading the sports page by the age of five. She played baseball and other sports in the neighborhood and was often chosen first for teams.

Throughout her childhood, she was an outstanding athlete, which culminated in a tennis scholarship to a prestigious private school in Los Angeles, the Westlake School for Girls. It was there she became captain of the tennis team during her high school years and competed in the national junior tennis circuit, ranking 18th in the semi-pro league.

Sports were important to Sally, but so were her academics. She was a good student with a fondness for science and math. Her parents recognized this early interest as well and supplied their young daughter with a chemistry set and telescope. Sally Ride excelled at school and graduated from Westlake School for Girls in 1968. She then enrolled at Stanford University and graduated in 1973 with bachelor degrees in both English and Physics.

Becoming an Astronaut

In 1977, while Sally Ride was a physics doctoral student at Stanford, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) conducted a national search for new astronauts and for the first time allowed women to apply, so she did. A year later, Sally Ride was selected, along with five other women and 29 men, as a candidate for NASA’s astronaut program. She received her Ph.D. in astrophysics that same year, 1978, and began training and evaluation courses for NASA.

By the summer of 1979, Sally Ride had completed her astronaut training, which included parachute jumping, water survival, radio communications, and flying jets. She also received a pilot’s license and then became eligible for an assignment as a Mission Specialist in the U.S. Space Shuttle program. During the next four years, Sally Ride would prepare for her first assignment on mission STS-7 (Space Transport System) aboard the space shuttle Challenger.

Along with hours of in-classroom instruction learning every aspect of the shuttle, Sally Ride also logged numerous hours in the shuttle simulator. She helped develop the Remote Manipulator System (RMS), a robotic arm, and became proficient at its use. Ride was the communications officer relaying messages from mission control to the space shuttle crew of the Columbia for the second mission, STS-2, in 1981, and again for the STS-3 mission in 1982. Also in 1982, she married fellow astronaut Steve Hawley.

Sally Ride in Space

Sally Ride launched into American history books on June 18, 1983, as the first American women into space when the space shuttle Challenger rocketed into orbit from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On board STS-7 were four other astronauts: Captain Robert L. Crippen, the spacecraft commander; Captain Frederick H. Hauck, the pilot; and two other Mission Specialists, Colonel John M. Fabian and Dr. Norman E. Thagard.

Sally Ride was in charge of launching and retrieving satellites with the RMS robotic arm, the first time it was used in such an operation on a mission. The five-person crew conducted other maneuvers and completed a number of scientific experiments during their 147 hours in space before landing at Edwards Air Force Base on June 24, 1983, in California.

Sixteen months later, on October 5, 1984, Sally Ride rode into space again on the Challenger. Mission STS-41G was the 13th time a shuttle had flown into space and was the first flight with a crew of seven. It also held other firsts for women astronauts. Kathryn (Kate) D. Sullivan was part of the crew, placing two American women in space for the first time. Additionally, Kate Sullivan became the first woman to conduct a spacewalk, spending over three hours outside the Challenger conducting a satellite refueling demonstration. As before, this mission included the launch of satellites along with scientific experiments and observations of Earth. The second launch for Sally Ride ended on October 13, 1984, in Florida after 197 hours in space.

Sally Ride came home to fanfare from both the press and the public. However, she quickly turned her focus to her training. While she was anticipating a third assignment as a member of the crew of STS-61M, tragedy struck the space program.

Disaster in Space

On January 28, 1986, a seven-person crew, including the first civilian headed to space, teacher Christa McAuliffe, took their seats inside the Challenger. Seconds after lift-off, with thousands of Americans watching, the Challenger exploded into fragments in the air. All seven on board were killed, four of whom were from Sally Ride’s 1977 training class. This public disaster was a great blow to NASA’s space shuttle program, resulting in the grounding of all space shuttles for three years.

When President Ronald Reagan called for a federal investigation into the cause of the tragedy, Sally Ride was selected as one of 13 commissioners to take part in the Rogers Commission. Their investigation found the main cause of the explosion was due to the destruction of the seals in the right rocket motor, which allowed hot gasses to leak through the joints and weaken the external tank.

While the shuttle program was grounded, Sally Ride turned her interest toward NASA’s planning of future missions. She moved to Washington D.C. to NASA headquarters to work in the new Office of Exploration and Office of Strategic Planning as a Special Assistant to the Administrator. Her task was to assist NASA in the development of long-term goals for the space program. Ride became the first Director of the Office of Exploration.

Then, in 1987, Sally Ride produced “Leadership and America’s Future in Space: A Report to the Administrator," commonly known as the Ride Report, detailing suggested future focuses for NASA. Among them were Mars exploration and an outpost on the Moon. That same year, Sally Ride retired from NASA. She also divorced in 1987.

Returning to Academia

After leaving NASA, Sally Ride set her sights on a career as a college professor of physics. She returned to Stanford University to complete a postdoc at the Center for International Security and Arms Control. While the Cold War was waning, she studied the banning of nuclear weapons.

With her postdoc complete in 1989, Sally Ride accepted a professorship at University of California at San Diego (UCSD) where she not only taught but also researched bow shocks, the shock wave resulting from stellar wind colliding with another medium. She also became the Director of the University of California’s California Space Institute. She was researching and teaching physics at UCSD when another shuttle disaster brought her temporarily back to NASA.

Second Space Tragedy

When the space shuttle Columbia launched on January 16, 2003, a piece of foam broke off and struck the shuttle’s wing. It wasn’t until the spacecraft’s descent to Earth more than two weeks later on February 1st that trouble caused by the lift-off damage would be known.​

The shuttle Columbia broke up with its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts aboard the shuttle. Sally Ride was asked by NASA to join the panel of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board to look into the cause of this second shuttle tragedy. She was the only person to serve on both space shuttle accident investigation commissions.

Science and Youth

While at UCSD, Sally Ride noted that very few women were taking her physics classes. Wanting to establish a long-term interest and love of science in young children, especially girls, she collaborated with NASA in 1995 on KidSat.

The program gave students in American classrooms the opportunity to control a camera on the space shuttle by requesting specific photographs of Earth. Sally Ride obtained the special targets from students and pre-programmed the necessary information and then sent it to NASA for inclusion on the shuttle’s computers, after which the camera would take the designated image and send it back to the classroom for study.

After successful runs on space shuttle missions in 1996 and 1997, the name was changed to EarthKAM. A year later the program was installed on the International Space Station where on a typical mission, more than 100 schools participate and 1500 photographs are taken of the Earth and its atmospheric conditions.

With EarthKAM’s success, Sally Ride was bolstered to find other avenues to bring science to youth and the public. As the Internet was growing in everyday use in 1999, she became president of an online company called, which highlights scientific news for those interested in space. After 15 months with the company, Sally Ride set her sights on a project to specifically encourage girls to seek out careers in science.

She put her professorship at UCSD on hold and founded Sally Ride Science in 2001 to develop young girls’ curiosity and encourage their life-long interest in science, engineering, technology, and math. Through space camps, science festivals, books on exciting scientific careers, and innovative classroom materials for teachers, Sally Ride Science continues to inspire young girls, as well as boys, to pursue careers in the field.

In addition, Sally Ride co-authored seven books on science education for children. From 2009 to 2012, Sally Ride Science along with NASA initiated another program for the science education for middle school students, GRAIL MoonKAM. Students from around the world select areas on the moon to be photographed by satellites and then the images can be used in the classroom to study the lunar surface.

Legacy of Honors and Awards

Sally Ride garnered a number of honors and awards throughout her outstanding career. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame (1988), the Astronaut Hall of Fame (2003), the California Hall of Fame (2006), and the Aviation Hall of Fame (2007). Twice she received the NASA Space Flight Award. She was also the recipient of the Jefferson Award for Public Service, Lindberg Eagle, the von Braun Award, NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award, and the National Space Grant Distinguished Service Award.

Sally Ride Dies

Sally Ride died on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61 after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. It was only after her death that Ride disclosed to the world that she was a lesbian; in an obituary that she co-wrote, Ride revealed her 27-year relationship with partner Tam O’Shaughnessy.

Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, left a legacy of science and space exploration for Americans to honor. She also inspired young people, especially girls, across the world to reach for the stars.

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Ogle-Mater, Janet. "Sally Ride." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Ogle-Mater, Janet. (2023, April 5). Sally Ride. Retrieved from Ogle-Mater, Janet. "Sally Ride." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).