Sally Ride, first American woman in space, dies at 61

Sally Ride, the woman who became an inspiration to millions when she blasted off as America's first female astronaut in 1983, passed away Monday in California after a battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 61.

Ride's company, Sally Ride Science, announced her death Monday afternoon via its official website. She had been battling cancer for 17 months.

Born in Encino, Calif., on May 26, 1951, Ride was already an accomplished academic when she joined NASA as an astronaut candidate in 1978. She earned both a bachelor of science in physics and a bachelor of arts in English from Stanford University in 1973, then went on to earn both a master's degree and a doctorate in physics from Stanford in 1975 and 1978, respectively. By August 1979 she had completed NASA's one-year astronaut training program, and she served in mission control as a capsule communicator (CAPCOM) for the second and third space shuttle missions in 1981 and '82.

Then, in June of 1983, she blasted off onboard the space shuttle Challenger as a mission specialist for the seventh shuttle mission. A quarter century later, Ride recalled preparing for the mission.

"The fact that I was going to be the first American woman to go into space carried huge expectations along with it," she said in 2008. "That was made pretty clear the day that I was told I was selected as a crew. I was taken up to Chris Kraft's office. He wanted to have a chat with me and make sure I knew what I was getting into before I went on the crew. I was so dazzled to be on the crew and go into space I remembered very little of what he said.

"On launch day, there was so much excitement and so much happening around us in crew quarters, even on the way to the launch pad. I didn't really think about it that much at the time ... but I came to appreciate what an honor it was to be selected to be the first to get a chance to go into space."

Ride returned to space in October 1984, again onboard Challenger, for STS-41-G, the first NASA mission to carry two female astronauts (Ride and fellow mission specialist Kathryn Sullivan). She was scheduled for a third flight, but the Challenger disaster in January of 1986 terminated the mission. Ride ultimately served as a member of the presidential commission appointed to investigate the disaster, and then remained at NASA for another three years as special assistant to the administrator for long-range and strategic planning.

In 1989 she joined the faculty at the University of California San Diego as a professor of physics and director of the university's California Space Institute. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, an education company devoted to promoting an interest in math, science and technology in students.

"A key part of our corporate mission is to make a difference in girls' lives, and in society's perceptions of their roles in technical fields," the company notes on its website. "Our school programs, classroom materials, and teacher trainings bring science to life to show kids that science is creative, collaborative, fascinating, and fun."

Among Ride's many honors are inductions into the National Women's Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame, the Jefferson Award for Public Service, the Lindbergh Eagle, the von Braun Award and the Theodore Roosevelt Award from the NCAA. In an official statement, NASA administrator Charles Bolden praised Ride's trailblazing efforts and lifelong devotion to education.

"Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism - and literally changed the face of America's space program," Bolden said. "The nation has lost one of its finest leaders, teachers and explorers. Our thoughts and prayers are with Sally's family and the many she inspired. She will be missed, but her star will always shine brightly."

Sally Kristen Ride: 1951-2012

(Via NPR)

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