Sally Ride: A Space Pioneer


We are all familiar with Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin, among other famous male astronauts who have a mark in the history of space travel. However, few of us know about female astronauts, one of whom is Sally Ride, the first female to orbit the Earth.

Sally Ride was born in 1951, in California, USA. As a young girl, Sally was fascinated by science and space exploration. She graduated and earned her Master's and PhD degrees in Physics Stanford University, California. As a graduate student, she carried out research in astrophysics and free-electron laser physics.

In 1978, NASA set out to recruit more scientists for the new Space Shuttle program. Ride was one of more than 8000 applicants for only 35 positions, but she made the cut, and was one of six women only accepted for astronaut training that year.

After her initial training period, Ride served as communications officer for the second and third shuttle flights, relaying radio messages from Mission Control to the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia. She was also assigned to the team that developed the Shuttle's mechanical robot arm, designed to deploy and retrieve satellites.

Sally's mission was the second flight for the vehicle known as “Challenger”, and the first American space mission to carry a crew of five. Sally Ride boarded the Challenger on 18 June 1983; the Challenger roared from the launch pad and into Earth orbit. Over the course of the six-day mission, the crew used the robot arm in space for the first time, retrieving one satellite from orbit and releasing another. On  October 1984, Sally Ride returned to space in an 8-day mission on the Challenger. Over the course of these two missions, Sally Ride had logged more than 343 hours in space.

On 28 January 1986, the Challenger fell to pieces a few minutes after taking-off; the entire crew perished in the catastrophe. Preparation for further missions was immediately suspended, and Ride was appointed to the Presidential Commission investigating the accident.

When the investigation was complete, Ride was assigned to NASA's Washington headquarters as a Special Assistant to the Administrator for long-range and strategic planning. She led the Agency's first strategic planning effort, and wrote the report "Leadership and America's Future in Space". Before leaving NASA in 1987, she founded the Agency's Office of Exploration.

Over the years, Sally Ride became concerned with the under-representation of women in science. Since boys and girls display equal enthusiasm for science in the early grades, Ride focused her efforts on the promotion of science in the middle grades, when girls in particular often drift away from the study of science.

She wrote a number of books on space exploration for younger readers, including her memoir To Space and Back. She also initiated NASA's Internet-based EarthKAM project, enabling middle school students to shoot and download images of the Earth from space. In 2001, she founded her own company, Sally Ride Science, offering entertaining science programs and publications for school students. The Company sponsored Sally Ride Clubs for girls at schools across the country, and Sally Ride Science Camps at a number of college campuses.

Sally Ride passed away of cancer in 2012, at the age of 61. The year following her death, she was posthumously awarded the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As great as were her own accomplishments in space exploration and astrophysics, Sally Ride's most enduring legacy may lie in the cumulative achievement of subsequent generations of young scientists, male and female, that she fostered and inspired.

**The original article is published in the SCIplanet, Winter 2014 issue "Human Civilization".


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