(1951- ) American Astronaut and Physicist
Sally Kristen Ride catapulted into the annals of history as the first American woman to travel in space on the space shuttle Challenger in June 1983. She went on another Challenger flight in 1984 and was training for a third flight when the Challenger exploded during liftoff in January 1986. President Ronald Reagan appointed Ride to the Rogers Commission, which was charged with investigating the Challenger tragedy, and she concluded that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had knowingly compromised the safety of its astronauts. Ride resigned from NASA in 1987 to become an administrator, physics professor, and children’s book author.
Ride was born on May 26, 1951, in Encino, California. Her father, Dale Burdell Ride, was a political science professor at Santa Monica Community College, and her mother, Carol Joyce Anderson Ride, was an English tutor. Ride earned a partial scholarship to the prestigious West-lake School for Girls in Los Angeles on the strength of her tennis prowess (she ranked 18th on the national junior circuit). Dr. Elizabeth Mommaerts, the physiology teacher, inspired Ride’s interest in science at a time when the field still discouraged women from becoming scientists. Ride graduated in 1968 and matriculated at Swarthmore College, where she studied physics only briefly while deciding whether to pursue a career as a professional tennis player.
Ride decided to continue her education at Stanford University, splitting her focus between Shakespeare and Einstein to earn dual degrees—a B.A. in English and a B.S. in physics—in 1973. She chose science over literature for her master’s work, which she completed in 1975 at Stanford. She remained at Stanford to pursue her doctorate, writing a dissertation entitled “The Interaction of X-Rays with the Interstellar Medium” for her 1978 Ph.D.
That year, Ride whimsically sent in a postcard application to NASA for entrance into its astronaut training program, which was recommencing after laying fallow since the 1960s and was considering women applicants for the first time. NASA admitted Ride as one of 35 trainees chosen from a field of more than 8,000 applicants. On the second space shuttle flight, in November 1981, and the third, in March 1982, Ride worked on the ground-support crew as a capsule communicator (capcom), acting as an intermediary between the ground team and flight crew. On July 26, 1982, Ride married fellow active astronaut Steven Alan Hawley at his family home in Kansas; the marriage yielded no children and ended in divorce in 1987.
Ride became the first American woman in space on flight STS-7 of the space shuttle Challenger from June 18 through June 24, 1983. She operated the shuttle’s mechanical arm to deploy a satellite, the first such operation ever performed. Ride again worked the robot arm on flight STS-41G of the Challenger from October 5 through October 13, 1984—this time using the arm to chip ice off the outside of the shuttle and adjust a radar antenna. Ride’s training for her third shuttle flight was interrupted by the midair explosion of the Challenger in January 1986, and she was reassigned to the Rogers Commission investigating the circumstances leading up to that explosion. She concluded that NASA had willfully compromised its astronauts’ safety in its haste to launch shuttle flights with possible equipment problems.
Before resigning from NASA in 1987, Ride wrote a report entitled Leadership and America’s Future in Space recommending a redirection of the administration’s focus toward international research projects on environmental problems. From NASA, Ride joined Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Arms Control for two years before moving to the University of California at San Diego as a physics professor and as director of the California Space Institute. She has written the children’s books To Space and Back (with childhood friend Susan Okie) and Voyager: An Adventure to the Edge of the Solar System (with former tennis partner Tam O’Shaughnessy) to encourage children’s interest in the sciences, an area that she finds lacking in the American educational system. Her latest book is The Third Planet: Exploring the Earth from Space. Her work has earned her the Jefferson Award for Public Service, and she received the National Spaceflight Medal twice.