A Woman of Many Firsts
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In 1982, Ride became the first female American astronaut, and returned to space in 1984. She assisted in the early
development of the Canadarm. She later shared her passion for astronomy through public outreach for NASA.
Sally Ride was born in Los Angeles in 1951, and was a standout tennis player as a child. Her tennis abilities and her intelligence earned her a full scholarship at Swathmore College. After three semesters, she decided to leave the college and become a professional tennis player. She entered the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), where she studied Shakespeare and quantum mechanics. At the time, she was the only female majoring in physics. She stopped playing tennis after she realized how much training would be involved for her to be successful, and decided to focus on her studies.
In her junior year, she transferred to Stanford University, graduating in 1973 with a Bachelor of Science in physics, and a Bachelor of Arts in English literature. She finished her studies in 1978 with a PhD, where she worked in astrophysics and lasers. While studying, she noticed an article in the university newspaper that NASA was looking for new astronauts, and wanted to recruit women. She was the only woman among twenty applicants for mission specialist positions, and became one of six women astronaut candidates.
Ride became a ground-based communicator for the earlier space shuttle flights, and was selected as the first American woman to fly into space, joining the seventh shuttle flight in 1982. As the first American astronaut, she experienced microagressions due to her gender. For instance, NASA asked Ride to assist in the development of a “space makeup kit”. She returned to space in 1984, and was scheduled to fly for a third time in 1986.
Her final trip to space was cancelled due to the explosion of the Challenger spacecraft. As an astronaut who had flown on the Challenger, she was appointed to the Roger Commission, which was tasked investigating the explosion. She was then assigned to work at NASA headquarters in Washington. She left NASA in 1987, and began a career in policy work. For over a decade, she participated in public outreach for NASA, and was appointed to investigate the Columbia’s explosion in 2003, the only person to serve on both panels. After her death from pancreatic cancer in 2012, her obituary publicly confirmed that she had been in a long-term same-sex relationship, making her the first LGBT astronaut.