Women In Tech: Sally Kristen Ride, first American woman in space

Sally Ride

Born in Los Angeles, California, on May 26, 1951, Sally Ride was an American Astronaut and physicist. She was the youngest and first woman American astronaut to travel to space, and the third woman in space.

Ride was the eldest of two children, with a younger sibling, Karen. Her mother worked as a volunteer at a women’s correctional facility, her father served in the U.S Army in Europe during World War II. Both parents were elders in the Presbyterian Church. In her younger years her family spent some time traveling to some places like Europe and Spain, during this time she learned how to play tennis. She was then coached by a former No. 1 player, Alice Marble, and by 1963 she was ranked No. 20 in Southern California for girls aged 12 and under. By the time she was ready to start her sophomore year, she had received a tennis scholarship to Westlake School for Girls, an exclusive all-girls private school in Los Angeles. In June 1968 she graduated from Westlake and decided to become an astrophysicist. Unlike other kids her age who spent their summer hanging out with friends, going to the beach and things of that nature, she took a class in advanced math at Santa Monica College.

She applied to Swarthmore College, where she was admitted with a full scholarship. Her athletic excellence continued throughout her time at Swarthmore. She played golf, and made the field hockey varsity team. She also won all six of her tennis matches, and became the Eastern Intercollegiate Women’s Singles champion. After three semesters, she returned to California in January 1970, with hopes of playing tennis professionally. She enrolled at UCLA, taking courses in Shakespeare and quantum mechanics, earning high grades. In her junior year she transferred to Stanford University, and ironically, Fred Hargadon, who had been the dean of admissions at Swarthmore, was then the dean of admissions at Stanford. He played a part in approving her admission both times. She graduated in 1973 with a Bachelor of Science degree in physics and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature then earned a Masters of Science degree in physics in 1975, and a Doctor of Philosophy in 1978. While at Stanford, she rekindled a friendship with Molly Tyson, who she played doubles with. To earn money they held tennis lessons from 1971-1972 at Dennis Van der Meer’s summer camp in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. During this time Molly and Sally formed an intimate relationship; Tyson ended it in 1975 and Sally moved in with newly divorced fellow physics graduate Billy Colson.


NASA had an article in The Stanford Daily that mentioned they were looking to recruit a group of astronauts for the Space Shuttle program, but not just anyone – they wanted to recruit women! Although Valentina Tereshkova, the Soviet Union’s cosmonaut, had flown in space in 1963, no women had been a part of a NASA mission to space. She requested an application form. She was one of 8,079 applicants NASA had received, then becoming one of the 208 finalists. She was the only woman alongside 20 applicants in the sixth group for the mission specialist position who had to report to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for interviews and medical examinations. Of course, being the athlete she had always been, her physical fitness impressed the doctors. She went through a series of different tasks before she would become qualified, such as a Personal Rescue Enclosure to see if she suffered from claustrophobia, and writing a one-page essay. She received a call from George Abbey, NASA’s director of flight operations on January 16, 1978, who was the one that informed she had been selected to be a part of NASA Astronaut Group 5, being one of 35 candidates in the group, along with 6 other women.

They would not become experienced astronauts until completing the training program. This included learning to fly NASA’s T-38 Talon jet aircraft. However, mission specialists do not have to qualify as pilots; they were never to control aircraft below 5,000 feet. Sally loved flying so much she decided to take private flying lessons to earn a private pilot’s license. NASA announced that the 35 candidates who had completed their training and evaluation were now officially astronauts and qualified for selection on space flight crews as of August 31, 1979. She served as a Capcom, a ground-based capsule communicator for the second and third Space Shuttle flights, and also helped develop the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (RMS) known as the “Canadarm,” or robot arm. She was the first woman to serve as a Capcom. In early 1982, the Chief of the Astronaut Office, John Young, began scheduling missions with TFNGs; he wanted a woman to fly on the mission due to the mission involving the use of RMS. A few of the choices included Judy Resnik, Anna Fisher and Sally. Ride ended up being chosen because of her performance as Capcom, skills with the robot arm and her personality and ability to work with others. With the approval from NASA Headquarters, it was announced in April 1982 that the first American woman to fly in space.

There were quite a few adjustments for NASA to have a female astronaut: Ride aided engineers in developing a “space makeup kit.” They also suggested providing a supply of 100 tampons for the six-day mission. The mission also carried the first Shuttle pallet satellite (SPAS-1) that also carried ten experiments to study formations of metal alloys in microgravity. Her job was to operate the robot arm to deploy and later retrieve SPAS-1. Overall the mission lasted 6 days, 2 hours, 23 minutes and 59 seconds. Ride became the first American woman to fly twice when she was a part of another mission in the Space Shuttle Challenger on October 5; when the SIR-B antenna failed to unfold correctly, she would use the robot arm to shake it loose being able to manipulating the robot arm a lot faster than what she was trained to do; also repairing a broken antenna on the middeck. This mission, STS-41-G, completed 132 orbits of the Earth in 197.5 hours on October 13, 1984.

In 1981, she started dating Steven Hawley, who was another one of the TFNGs. They later married on July 26, 1982, in Salina, Kansas, in the backyard of his parent’s home. Ride did not take her husband’s last name. Ride was in rotation, training for her third flight, STS-61-M, a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System deployment mission; also serving two more missions as a CapCom. In 1985, she began an affair with Tam O’Shaughnessy; they knew each other during Ride’s time at Stanford and also from the junior tennis circuit.

In October 1986, she co-wrote and published a children’s book, To Space and Back, with her friend Sue Okie. Ride announced that she was leaving NASA in May of 1987 and taking up a two-year fellowship at Stanford University Center for International Security and Arms Control, starting on August 15, 1987. She divorced from Hawley in June. During her time in Stanford she researched nuclear warheads that could be verified from space. She had hoped to secure a permanent position as a professor at Stanford, however it did not happen and she resigned from CISAC. In 1989, she became a professor of physics and director of the California Space Institute at the University of California, San Diego. From the mid-1990s until her death, she led two public outreach programs for NASA, the ISS EarthKAM and GRAIL MoonKAM projects. This program allowed middle school students to request images of the Earth and the Moon. Ride settled in La Jolla, California, with Tam moving in shortly after she took a teaching position at San Diego Mesa College. Not wanting to leave her life in California, she declined an offer from President Bill Clinton to become NASA Administrator; however, she did agree to serve on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. She became the president of the space news website, Space.com, from September 1999 to July 2000. Space.com is a company that produces news about science and space.


She co-founded Sally Ride Science with O’Shaughnessy, which created entertaining science programs and publications for upper elementary and middle school students, mainly for young girls. They also co-wrote six children books on space with the hopes it would encourage children to study science. Once again she turned down an offer to become the NASA administrator, again serving on the board of the National Math and Science Initiative in 2007, also endorsing Barack Obama in 2008, and in 2009 serving the Educate to Innovate Initiative. She became a member of the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee.

During the National Science Teachers Association Conference in San Francisco on March 10, 2011, where Ride delivered a speech, Tam and a friend noticed Sally had looked ill. Tam booked her a doctor’s appointment that revealed a tumor the size of a golf ball in her abdomen. A follow up CT scan revealed it was pancreatic cancer, she underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy to reduce the size of the tumor. Ride drew up a will in 1992 to ensure Tam would inherit Ride’s estate; they registered their domestic partnership on August 15. On October 27, Ride had parts of her pancreas, bile duct, stomach, intestines, and her gallbladder removed. She died in her home in La Jolla on July 23, 2012. Her papers are in the NASA Museum Archives of the Smithsonian Institution. Her obituary revealed for the first time that O’Shaughnessy had been her partner of 27 years, making Ride the first LGBTQ astronaut.

Wikipedia’s article on Sally Ride was a major source for this article.

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