Sally Ride, First U.S. Woman in Space, Dies of Cancer at Age 61

By Chelsea Whyte on July 24, 2012 8:18 PM EDT

sally ride
Ride, Sally Ride. The former NASA astronaut, shown here aboard the Challenger space shuttle, died Monday of pancreatic cancer at age 61. (Photo: Creative Commons: National Arc)

Former NASA astronaut Sally Ride died Monday at the age of 61 in her home in La Jolla, Calif., after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer.

Ride, the first American female to enter space, traveled aboard the Challenger space shuttle in 1983 - just five years after women had been granted access to the previously all-male U.S. astronaut corps. A Stanford-educated physicist, she was America's youngest astronaut at the time of her first launch.

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"Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism - and literally changed the face of America's space program," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a statement. "The nation has lost one of its finest leaders, teachers and explorers." 

Ride took two trips to orbit aboard the space shuttle and went on to an award-winning academic career at the University of California, San Diego, where she began her career as a professor in 1989. She also served as a member of the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee in 2009 which informed many of the decisions about NASA's current human spaceflight programs.

She left this world a well-respected member of the spaceflight community. But she entered it a wide-eyed, excited young woman who seemed not to know the impact she would have on the public.

"The fact that I was going to be the first American woman to go into space carried huge expectations along with it," Ride recalled in an interview for the 25th anniversary of her flight 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," Ride said. "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."

Her historic accomplishments were an inspiration to a generation of young, female scientists, and in 2001, she founded an education company called Sally Ride Science, designed to promote careers in science, technology and math for girls and young women.

Her astronaut ex-husband, Steve Hawley, recalled Monday how she found herself "a very public persona," and "it was a role in which she was never fully comfortable," reports The Christian Science Monitor.

"While she never enjoyed being a celebrity, she recognized that it gave her the opportunity to encourage children, particularly young girls, to reach their full potential," Hawley said in a statement. "Sally Ride, the astronaut and the person, allowed many young girls across the world to believe they could achieve anything if they studied and worked hard. I think she would be pleased with that legacy."

Her legacy may be larger than she even knew. Ride spent her final 27 years of life with her female partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy. A notoriously private woman, Ride never came out as a lesbian during her life, but an official statement from Sally Ride Science named O'Shaughnessy as her longtime "partner", according to The Huffington Post.

So in addition to being the first American female in space, she is now known to be the first gay or bisexual American woman to fly in space, as well.

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