Unlike many astronauts, Sally Kristen Ride did not dream of going into space since childhood. She was already in her mid-twenties, completing her Ph.D. in physics, when the idea dawned. NASA was recruiting women to apply to become astronauts for a spacecraft that had not yet flown: the Space Shuttle. She was well prepared to seize the opportunity to become a scientist-astronaut in a new role called Mission Specialist. She had the academic credentials and the spirit to decide to apply, and the rest is history.
Selected with five other women scientists in 1978, Sally Ride soon became the first U.S. woman to fly in space in 1983, on the seventh shuttle mission. The Soviets had sent a woman into orbit twenty years earlier during the Space Race to claim the first, but Sally Ride’s flight was the start of something different—a steady queue of women going to work in space. She made her second flight in 1984 with the first U.S. woman to do a spacewalk. Since those historic missions, women have performed all roles in space as scientists, engineers, operators of the robotic arm (she was the first), spacewalkers, pilots, and commanders.
Sally Ride’s career and legacy extended well beyond her missions in space. Twice she served on the commissions appointed to investigate the causes and recommend remedies after the tragic losses of the Challenger and Columbia crews. She led a strategic planning effort for NASA that yielded the 1987 report Leadership and America’s Future in Space, and she served as the first chief of the new NASA Office of Exploration.
After leaving NASA in 1987, Dr. Sally Ride became a full-time educator, first at the University of California and California Space Institute in San Diego, and later through her independent initiatives as an author and founder of Sally Ride Science, an organization dedicated to improving science education and encouraging young people, especially girls, to study science.
Sally Ride became a national icon of women’s achievement in science and space in 1983. Her flight suit from that historic mission is on display in the Moving Beyond Earth exhibition gallery.
Valerie Neal is a curator in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum.