Sally Ride was a physicist and the first American female astronaut. Born in 1951, she grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of a political science professor. Besides her interest in the physical sciences, she was also a nationally ranked tennis player. She went to Swarthmore College for a couple years, then transferred to Stanford University as a junior. At Stanford, she first earned double major bachelor’s degrees in physics and English and then went on to obtain a PhD in physics there in 1978, with a focus on astrophysics and free electron lasers. That same year, Sally was accepted into NASA’s astronaut training program – a coup, since a thousand others had applied. After completing their rigorous program, Sally became the first U.S. woman astronaut as part of the crew of the space shuttle Challenger in 1983; only two women made it into space before her, both members of the Russian space program. As part of the Challenger crew of five, she deployed satellites and did pharmaceutical experiments.
The next year, Sally flew another shuttle mission and logged a total of 343 hours in space; she did eight months of special training for a third shuttle mission, but when the Challenger tragically exploded in a disastrous launch malfunction in January of 1986, the mission was canceled. She headed a subcommittee on the presidential commission that investigated the shuttle explosion; many years later, after her death, it was revealed by General Donald Kutyna that she had discreetly given him key engineering information that led to identifying the cause of the explosion. She continued with NASA at their headquarters in Washington, D.C., after which she led NASA’s first strategic planning initiative and founded its new Office of Exploration. Sally left NASA in 1987 to work at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Arms Control. In 1989, she became a physics professor at UC San Diego as well as director of the university’s California Space Institute.
In 2001, Sally started Sally Ride Science, a company that created educational programs and products whose aim was to inspire girls to stay with their interests in science and math, serving as the company’s president and CEO. She received the NASA Space Flight Medal as well as the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award and later inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Before passing away from pancreatic cancer, Sally Ride left her mark on Earth as well as in space. After her passing, it was revealed that she had been partners with another woman, a school psychology professor, for 27 years; Tam O’Shaughnessy now carries on Sally’s legacy as the CEO and chair of the board of Sally Ride Science.