Sally Ride: Astronaut and First Woman in Space

On the eve of July 16th, 1961, we have successfully put on man on the moon. As America celebrated Apollo 11's moon landing, Sally Ride was just a middle school student, falling in love with science. Years later, after becoming a successful scientist, and qualifying as a space shuttle crew trainee at NASA, Ride announced in an interview that she had always seen herself as an astronaut.

At that time, her dream of reaching outer space was still somewhat distant. Ride may have seen herself as the first American woman to orbit the moon, or even as a role model for millions of young women who will follow in her foot steps in pursuing a career in STEM. She knew, though, as we know now, that she would pioneer a frontier that is much further than the 238,900 miles from earth: an era that is not yet ready for women to handle machinery, write code, solve complicated issues, or use the bathroom in a spacesuit. Yet she achieved more than what most men couldn't in their life time, in a period and a field that, for the most part, lacked enthusiasm for strong female leaders like her.

Of a world full of inspiring female leaders we could have profiled for our first article, we chose Ride because of her courage to enter a male-dominated field, as well as outer space. We also chose her because, with hard work and passion, her achievements can be attained by anyone. We want our readers to learn about Ride's journey to outer space and say, "hey, we can do that too."


Ride was born on May 26th, 1951, in Encino, California, to Dale B. Ride, a Political Science Professor, and Carol Joyce (Anderson) Ride, a counselor. Though her parents never supplied her with a scientific background, they encouraged her to explore, push the envelope, and pursue her dream. It was most likely because of their encouragement that Ride had the courage to pioneer in a male-dominated industry and into space.

Ride began her formal education at Birmingham High School and Harvard-Westlake School for Girls, a prestigious private institution where Ride had a scholarship and graduated from. After High School, Ride attended Swarthmore College for three semesters and took courses at UCLA before entering Stanford University as a junior. She graduated from Stanford with degrees in English and physics. She then earned a Master's degree in 1975 and a Ph.D in physics in 1978, both from Stanford.

In 1977, still a student at Stanford, Ride saw an ad in the school newspaper that called for women to apply to NASA's astronaut program. Her decision to apply for the job landed her one of the six open positions in the program, beating over 8000 applicants.

"I'm one of those people," Ride later expressed to the New York Times of her excitement to enter the Space Program at NASA. It seems that she knew exactly what she wanted to do at an early age.

Contributions at NASA

Though rigorous, the NASA Astronaut Program offered Ride opportunities that were unimaginable for women just a few decades before her time. On June 18, 1983, she became the first American woman in space on the space shuttle Challenger, following Soviet female Astronauts, Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. During the same flight, Ride also became the first woman in the world to use a robot arm in space and retrieve a satellite. Her second space flight was STS-41-G in 1984, also on board the Challenger.

During her expeditions to outer space, Ride attained great experiences, including recording and analyzing technical data, serving as a CapCom communicator and developing the space shuttle's Canadarm Robotic Arm.

Ride stopped her training as an active astronaut when the space shuttle Challenger disaster occurred. She was then assigned by the Rogers Commission, the Presidential commission that investigated the accident, to serve on panels that investigated the Challenger accident. She later also served on the panel that investigated the Columbia accident.

Following the Challenger investigation, Ride led NASA's first strategic planning effort and published a report titled "NASA Leadership and America's Future in Space," and founded NASA's Office of Exploration. During the investigations that Ride lead, she had provided key information about the stiffening of O-rings, a key reason that led to the identification of the cause of the Challenger explosion.

Leadership After NASA

In 1987, Ride left NASA and returned to academia. She first worked at Stanford University Center for International Security and Arms Control, and then became a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego, and later the director of the California Space Institute.

Having been in the public eye as a pioneering woman, Ride served the Science and Engineering community by leading two outreach programs sponsored by NASA, the ISS EarthKAM and GRAIL MoonKAM projects, in cooperation with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and UCSD. And up until her death in 2012, Ride was the president and CEO of Sally Ride Science. The company offers science programs and publications for young adults, with a specific focus on girls who want to seek a career in STEM. Ride also wrote seven children's books that encourage children to study science.

Why We Love Sally Ride

Ride's incredible life ended in 2012, after a brave battle with Pancreatic Cancer. Her legacy, though, lives on. Throughout her career, she has earned many awards, including the National Space Society's von Braun Award, the Lindbergh Eagle, and the Theodore Roosevelt Award. Ride also earned inductions into the National Women's Hall of Fame, the Astronaut Hall of Fame, the California Hall of Fame at the California Museum for History, Women, and the Arts, and the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio.

Ride also received the NASA Space Flight Medal; and two U.S. elementary schools, the Sally Ride Elementary Schools in The Woodlands, Texas and Germantown, Maryland, were named after her. On May 20, 2013, President Barack Obama presented Tam O'Shaughnessy, Ride's life partner, in honor of Ride, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.

Ride's contributions to science was significant; but, her leadership for women in the STEM field holds even more significance. In a time when the world needed more women Engineers, Doctors, Programmers and the like, we have few examples to look up to. And we are fortunate to have someone like Ride who chartered the way, and has given back. We love her for her work, and love her even more for pioneering the path and leading a brighter future for women.

This post was written by Nan Nan Liu. For more information regarding the author, please contact us at STRONG WOMEN LEADERS CONTACT FORM.