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Sally Kristen Ride, a California original, dead at 61 of pancreatic cancer

“Sally Ride died peacefully on July 23, 2012 after a courageous 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer,” according to a statement on the Sally Ride Science <in San Diego> Web site. “Sally lived her life to the fullest, with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, joy, and love. Her integrity was absolute; her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless.”

I admire “fearless.”

Sally Ride was the first American woman in space and a role model for thousands. She was the elder of two daughters of Carol Joyce (née Anderson) and Dale Burdell Ride and was born in Encino, California. Wikipedia says:

Ride attended Portola Middle School and Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles (now Harvard-Westlake School) on a scholarship. In addition to being interested in science, she was a nationally ranked tennis player. Ride attended Swarthmore College for three semesters, took physics courses at UCLA, and then entered Stanford University as a junior, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English and physics. Also at Stanford, she earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in physics, while doing research in astrophysics and free electron laser physics.

In the U.S. space program, NASA astronauts were chosen primarily from the ranks of military test pilots, and through the entire Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, they were all male.

(Imagine THAT! 😉 )

In the Soviet space program the women, Valentina Tereshkova (in 1963) and Svetlana Savitskaya (in 1982) preceded Sally Ride in space. With the U.S. space shuttle program, a new class of astronaut, the “mission specialist,” was created, which opened the doors of space travel to non-pilots with advanced degrees and professional experience in science and high-tech.

After serving as a mission control “capsule communicator,” or CAPCOM, for two missions, Ride rocketed into history as the first American woman in space on June 18, 1983, when she blasted off aboard the shuttle Challenger for mission STS-7, a six-day flight to deploy two communications satellites and to launch and retrieve a small science satellite.

Ride became instantly famous, a role model for women and young girls around the world, breaking through the ultimate glass ceiling and into the previously male world of the astronaut corps.

Sally Ride’s second mission, in 1984, involved using the Challenger’s robotic arm to launch an Earth observation satellite. In her first two missions, Ride logged 343 hours in space. She had been picked for a third flight when the space shuttle was grounded after the Challenger’s destruction on January 28, 1986. CNET News states:

Ride was selected to serve on the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, chaired by former Secretary of State William Rogers, a panel that included such luminaries as Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman and Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon.

Ride was still an active-duty astronaut when the panel did its work in the spring of 1986 and her grilling of NASA engineers about a long history of O-ring problems like the failure that doomed Challenger was memorable. She could not hide her amazement that mid-level NASA managers approved continued shuttle flights despite a known, potentially fatal defect.

Wikipedia states:

According to Roger Boisjoly, the engineer who warned of the technical problems that led to the Space Shuttle Challenger accident, Ms. Ride was the only public figure to show support for him when he went public with his pre-disaster warnings (after the entire workforce of Morton-Thiokol shunned him). Sally Ride hugged him publicly to show her support for his efforts.

I also admire the courage to do the right thing, something that is not very popular with corporations in general.

Sally Ride married fellow NASA astronaut Steve Hawley in 1982, and they were divorced in 1987. Wikipedia states:

From 1985 until her death, Ride’s partner was Dr. Tam E. O’Shaughnessy, a childhood friend who met Ride when both youngsters were aspiring tennis players. O’Shaughnessy became a science teacher and writer and, later, the chief operating officer and executive vice president of Ride’s company, Sally Ride Science. She also co-authored several books with Ride. The fact that Ride was in a lesbian relationship with O’Shaugnessy was confirmed by both Ride’s sister and by a spokesperson for Sally Ride Science. They stated that Ride preferred to keep this information private during her life.

In 1987, Ride left the corps of astronauts and resigned from NASA to work at the Stanford University Center for International Security and Arms Control. In 1989, she became a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego and Director of the California Space Institute. In 2003, she was asked to serve on the Space Shuttle Columbia Accident Investigation Board. She was the president and CEO of Sally Ride Science, a company she founded in 2001 that creates entertaining science programs and publications for upper elementary and middle school students, with a particular focus on girls.

I have argued that much of the problem of American students not pursuing degrees and advanced degrees in the sciences and mathematics (but not the sexism of those fields) could be “fixed” by PAYING people in such professions commensurate with their intelligence, years of education, and value to our country. Sadly, capitalism tends to reward far-less-capable (and far-less-scrupulous :-) ) people, in preference. (“You get what you pay for.”)

Ride was the co-author of seven science books aimed at children and helped organize the GRAIL MoonKAM program, letting kids in classrooms around the world take pictures of the lunar surface with a NASA satellite currently in orbit around the moon.

Wikipedia describes some of the many awards that Sally Ride received in her life:

Ride received numerous awards, including the National Space Society‘s von Braun Award, the Lindbergh Eagle, and the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame and was awarded the NASA Space Flight Medal twice. Ride was the only person to serve on both of the panels investigating Shuttle accidents (those for the Challenger accident and the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster). Two elementary schools in the United States are named after her: Sally K. Ride Elementary School in The Woodlands, Texas and Sally K. Ride Elementary School in Germantown, Maryland.

On December 6, 2006, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver inducted Ride into the California Hall of Fame, located at the California Museum for History, Women, and the Arts <now The California Museum>.

Sally Ride died today after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. She is survived by her partner of 27 years, Dr. Tam O’Shaughnessy, her mother, Joyce, her sister, Karen, a niece, and a nephew.

-Bill at

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