Meet Dr. Sally Ride -- first U.S. Female to Fly to Space

Doctor Sally Ride - First American Woman in Space - Doctor Sally Ride Biography - Astronaut
Doctor Sally Ride - First American Woman in Space - Doctor Sally Ride Biography - Astronaut. NASA

From Tennis to Astrophysics

You've probably heard of Dr. Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman astronaut to fly to space. When she got interested in space, the world of tennis lost one of its nationally ranked players, but the rest of the world gained an accomplished scientist-astronaut. Ride, who was born in  Encino, CA  in 1951, began playing tennis as a young girl. She won a tennis scholarship to Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles and later dropped out of Swarthmore College to pursue a professional tennis career. She later enrolled at Stanford University, taking a degree in English. She also got a masters in science, and enrolled as a Ph.D. candidate in astrophysics.

Dr. Ride read about NASA’s search for astronauts and applied to be an astronaut.She was accepted in her astronaut class in January 1978 and completed the rigorous training in August, 1979. This made her eligible for assignment as a mission specialist on future space shuttle flight crews. She subsequently performed as an on-orbit capsule communicator (CAPCOM) on the STS-2 and STS-3 missions.

First Ride into Space

In 1983, Dr. Ride became the first American woman in space as an astronaut on the shuttle Challenger. She was a mission specialist on STS-7, which launched from Kennedy Space Center, FL, on June 18. She was accompanied by Captain Robert Crippen (commander), Captain Frederick Hauck (pilot), & fellow mission specialists Colonel John Fabian and  Dr. Norman Thagard. This was the second flight for the Challenger and  the first mission with a five-person crew. Mission duration was 147 hours and Challenger landed on a lakebed runway at Edwards Air Force Base, California, on June 24, 1983.

After establishing the historic feat by becoming the first American woman in space, Dr. Ride's next flight was an eight-day mission in 1984, again on the Challenger, where she served as a mission specialist on STS 41-G, which launched from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on October 5. This was the largest crew to fly to date and included Captain Robert Crippen (commander), Captain Jon McBride (pilot), fellow mission specialists, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan and Commander David Leestma, as well as two payloads specialists, Commander Marc Garneau and Mr. Paul Scully-Power. Mission duration was 197 hours and concluded with a landing at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on October 13, 1984.

Dr. Ride's Role on the Challenger Commission

In June 1985, Dr. Ride was assigned to serve as a mission specialist on STS 61-M. When the space shutle Challenger exploded in January, 1986, she terminated her mission training in order to serve as a member of the Presidential Commission investigating that accident. Upon completion of the investigation, she was assigned to NASA headquarters as Special Assistant to the Administrator for long-range and strategic planning. She was responsible for the creation of NASA's "Office of Exploration" and produced a report on the future of the space program called "Leadership and America's Future in Space."

Dr. Ride retired from NASA in 1987 and accepted a position as a Science Fellow at the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University. In 1989, she was named Director of the California Space Institute and Professor of Physics at the University of California, San Diego..

Dr. Sally Ride received numerous awards, including the Jefferson Award for Public Service, the Women's Research and Education Institute's American Woman Award, and twice awarded the National Spaceflight Medal.

Personal Life

Dr. Ride was married to fellow astronaut Steven Hawley from 1982-1987. From then on, her life partner was Dr. Tam O'Shaughnessy, who co-founded Sally Ride Science. That organization is an outgrowth of the former Sally Ride Club. They wrote several children's books together. Dr. Sally Ride died on July 23, 2012 of pancreatic cancer. 

Edited and revised by Carolyn Collins Petersen