Dr. Sally K. Ride became a national icon of achievement in science and space on June 18, 1983, when she became the first American woman to fly in space. Born in 1951 in suburban Encino, California, she took up tennis as a teenager and within a few years was ranked eighteenth nationally. In 1968, she enrolled at Swarthmore College as a physics major, but she dropped out after three semesters to train full-time at tennis. In 1970, Ride gave up tennis and entered Stanford University, where she took a double major in physics and English literature. She went on to complete a Masters and Ph.D. in physics from Stanford. Her doctoral dissertation dealt with the theoretical behavior of free electrons in a magnetic field.
While completing her Ph.D. in physics, she saw an announcement that National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was looking for young scientists to serve as mission specialists and she immediately applied. She passed NASA's preliminary process and became one of 208 finalists. Ride was flown to Johnson Space Center outside Houston for physical fitness tests, psychiatric evaluation, and personal interviews. Three months later, she was an astronaut and one of six women selected for the class of 1978.
While learning to use a new space shuttle remote manipulative arm for a future mission, Ride acted as backup orbit Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM) for STS-2 and prime orbit CAPCOM for STS-3. She was named a mission specialist on the seventh flight of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983. As a mission specialist in the first five-member Shuttle crew, she operated a variety of orbiter systems and experiment payloads; she participated in the launch of two commercial communications satellites and also operated the remote manipulator system arm to maneuver, release, and retrieve a free-flying satellite. Ride also flew on a second mission, STS-41G in 1984, again on the Challenger. She spent a total of more than 343 hours in space.
Ride's career and legacy extended well beyond her missions in space. Ride had completed eight months of training for her third flight (STS-61-M, a TDRS deployment mission) when the space shuttle Challenger disaster occurred, and she was named to the Rogers Commission (the presidential commission investigating the accident) and headed its subcommittee on operations. Following the investigation, Ride was assigned to NASA headquarters where she led a strategic planning effort for NASA that yielded the 1987 report NASA Leadership and America's Future in Space: A Report to the Administrator (also known as the Ride Report), and she served as the first chief of the new NASA Office of Exploration. In 1993, she was named to the Columbia Accident Board, appointed to investigate the causes and to recommend remedies after that tragic loss.
In 1987, Ride left NASA to become a full-time educator. She first worked at the Stanford University Center for International Security and Arms Control and in 1989 she became a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and Director of the California Space Institute. From the mid-1990s until her death, Ride led two public-outreach programs for NASA — the ISS EarthKAM and GRAIL MoonKAM projects, in cooperation with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and UCSD. The programs allowed middle school students to request images of the Earth.
Ride continued her endeavors to improve science education and encourage young people to study science through her independent initiatives as an author or co-author of seven books on space aimed at children, and as a co-founder of Sally Ride Science, a company founded in 2001 that creates entertaining science programs and publications for upper elementary and middle school students, with a particular focus on science education for girls.
Ride died on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, seventeen months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.