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In Memoriam: Sally K. Ride

The First American Woman in Space

First published May 2013, Crosslink® magazine

Richard K. Park


Sally Ride speaking“The nation has lost one if its finest leaders, teachers, and explorers.”

–Charles Bolden, NASA administrator

Sally K. Ride, a member of The Aerospace Corporation’s board of trustees for eight years, died in July 2012 at the age of 61. At the time of her death, Ride had endured a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer.

Ride was best known as the first American woman to fly in space and, at age 32, was the youngest person to travel in space when she flew as an astronaut on the space shuttle Challenger in June 1983 (STS-7). She also flew aboard the Challenger in October 1984 (STS-41). NASA had decided that it needed astronauts with more education in the sciences when Ride was picked as one of only 35 out of 8300 applicants for the astronaut training position. Ride had an extensive science education, having earned a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1973 from Stanford University, as well as a master’s in 1975 and a doctorate in 1978, both in astrophysics from Stanford. In later years, following the shuttle disasters, Ride was the only person to serve on both of the panels investigating the 1986 Challenger accident and the 2003 shuttle Columbia disaster.

Space shuttle Challenger launches on STS-7 in June 1983 with Ride aboard.

Space shuttle Challenger launches on STS-7 in June 1983 with Ride aboard.

In the presentation “Reach for the Stars,” which Ride gave at Aerospace in August 2010, Ride recollected the moment she lifted off into space on her first shuttle mission. “I didn’t know whether I was going to be terrified or exhilarated or some combination of those things. I was really surprised by my emotional reaction. When the solid rockets ignited, I was instantly washed over by this incredible feeling of helplessness, because it was so obvious there was nothing I could do to change what was happening. It actually took me a few seconds to fight through that feeling.” She had also told reporters after her first shuttle launch, “I’m sure it was the most fun that I’ll ever have in my life.”

While the public will primarily remember Ride for her participation on the space shuttle flights, her vast accomplishments did not end there. Ride worked at NASA’s Washington headquarters, where she wrote “Leadership and America’s Future in Space.” There, she also founded the Office of Exploration, before resigning in 1987 to work at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Arms Control. In 1989, she became director of the California Space Institute at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a professor of physics at UC San Diego.

Ride was elected to The Aerospace Corporation’s board of trustees in June 2004 and served on the audit and finance, technical, awards, strategic planning, compensation and personnel, and executive committees. She was the technical committee chair from December 2009 to December 2010.

“As an astronaut, I’m a true believer in the value and importance of mission assurance—the need for an important process; vigilance that the process is well maintained and understood; objectivity, tenacity, and, probably most important of all, integrity about the technical details that you’re studying and working on. When I realized that that was what Aerospace stood for, I thought I couldn’t be prouder to be a member of any board of trustees or directors in the country,” said Ride.

Aerospace President and CEO Wanda Austin, one of Ride’s fellow trustees and a member of the technical committee, recalled working with her and the many contributions she made.

“Everyone knows Sally Ride as the first American woman in space and as a technical powerhouse,” said Austin. “What made Sally Ride so special was her strength of personality and strength of character. I had an opportunity to see her magic in action when we both served on the Augustine Commission.” That commission was also known by its formal title, the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee.

 NASA astronaut Sally Ride on her first space shuttle mission.

NASA astronaut Sally Ride on her first space shuttle mission.

Later in her life, Ride became passionate about developing and encouraging young people’s interests in science. She wrote several books for children, including Exploring Our Solar System, The Mystery of Mars, and Voyager. In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science, a science education company dedicated to supporting girls’ and young women’s interests in science, math, and technology. The organization’s mission is to bring science to life by strengthening teachers’ skills in science and math through training and professional development and by offering real science investigations for students in grades 4–8. Aerospace is a corporate partner of Sally Ride Science and has sponsored several Sally Ride Science festivals. These are held at college campuses throughout the United States and bring together hundreds of young girls for a day of science, hands-on workshops, and guest speakers.

“It is important to give every child the opportunity to succeed and achieve their potential, no matter what that potential might be in. You do not want a 10-year-old to foreclose their options to be a scientist or an engineer because they do not know anything about science; they do not know how cool it is, and they can’t see themselves going into that. You want them to keep their options open so that they can achieve their potential,” said Ride.

Ride was also a founding member of Change the Equation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, CEO-led initiative that is mobilizing the business community to improve the quality of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning in the United States. Aerospace is a member of this coalition, and Wanda Austin was among the first to commit to the initiative when it launched in September 2010.

“My first job was to call CEOs to get them to commit themselves and their companies to this concept and join the initiative. My first call was to Wanda Austin, because I knew that this wasn’t going to be a difficult phone call, and that I did not need to convince her about the importance of science and math education both to Aerospace and the nation in general,” said Ride.

“Sally was a dedicated, committed role model for the next generation of kids, especially girls. She spent countless hours in her quest to inspire them to study engineering and the sciences,” said Austin.

Ride received numerous awards in her lifetime, including twice being awarded the NASA Space Flight Medal. She has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame.

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