Sally Ride: The first American woman in space


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The Independent Online

In 1983 Dr Sally Ride, who has died of cancer, became the first American women to journey into space, as part of a five-person crew aboard the Challenger space shuttle. She said of the voyage "The thing that I'll remember most about the flight is that it was fun. In fact, I'm sure it was the most fun I'll ever have in my life."

Sally Ride was born in 1951 in Los Angeles. Her fascination with science began early, with a telescope and chemistry set. After graduating with a degree in Physics and English from Stanford she embarked on a Physics doctorate. It was in 1977, just as she was finishing her PhD, that she saw a Nasa advertisement in the university newspaper, looking for scientists and engineers to join the space programme.

Until then most astronauts had been military test pilots, and all had been men. Of the 8,000 who applied, 35 were chosen for astronaut school, including six women. Following a year of initial training, she was selected as a crew member for the second flight in Challenger. This was the beginning of a lifetime's dedication to the US space programme.

Recalling her meeting with the Nasa director of the Manned Spacecraft Center in a later interview, she recalled: "The fact that I was going to be the first American woman to go into space carried huge expectations along with it. 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... I was so dazzled to be on the crew and go into space I remembered very little of what he said."

The current Chief of the Nasa Astronaut Office, Peggy Whitson, said: "The selection of the 1978 Astronaut Class that included Sally and several other women had a huge impact on my dream to become an astronaut. The success of those woman, with Sally paving the way, made my dream seem one step closer to becoming a reality".

On 18 June 1983, when Challenger was launched from the Kennedy Space Center, Ride became the first American woman to go into space. The six-day mission, known as STS-7, carried out scientific experiments and deployed two communication satellites using the robot arm which she had been involved in developing.

Her second flight took place the following year, again on Challenger, taking the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite (ERBS) into orbit and carrying out scientific observations of our planet. ERBS would go on to deliver data about the ozone layer over the next two decades, contributing valuable information which was fed into the Montreal Protocol and the subsequent elimination of ozone-damaging chlorofluorocarbons.

Ride was due to fly again on the space shuttle in July 1986 but when Challenger exploded after take-off in January of that year, and flights were suspended, her space-travelling career came to an end. She was subsequently involved in investigating this and the later 2003 Columbia accident; the Challenger disaster prompted Nasa to reflect on the future of its space programmes. Ride began work on a Nasa-commissioned project which led to the report Leadership and America's Future in Space (1987).

She examined four key areas: Mission to Planet Earth – exploration and research on our own planet; Exploration of the Solar System; Outpost on the Moon, envisaging a lunar space station; and Humans to Mars, which she considered "...a great national adventure; as such, it would require a concentrated massive national commitment – a commitment to a goal and its supporting science, technology, and infrastructure for many decades." In this report she had the courage and vision to outline plans for what would have been considered science fiction a few decades earlier.

On retiring from Nasa in 1987, Ride used her high profile to inspire girls and young women to become scientifically literate and to pursue careers in engineering and science. She became a fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Arms Control and a director of the California Space Institute. Over the last decade she had established the company Sally Ride Science, and co-wrote seven books, several of them with her partner, Tamara O'Shaughnessy.

Sally Ride, astronaut and space scientist: born Los Angeles 26 May 1951; married 1982 Steven Hawley (divorced 1987), partner to Tamara O'Shaughnessy since 1985; died La Jolla, California 23 July 2012.