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American Astronaut Sally Ride Dies at 61

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Sally Ride, 1951-2012

Sally Ride during the STS-7 mission in 1983. Credit: NASA

Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman in space, died today at age 61, according to the Web site of her science-education company, Sally Ride Science. The cause was pancreatic cancer.

Ride was born May 26, 1951, in Los Angeles and attended Stanford University, where she received bachelor’s degrees in physics and English, as well as master’s and doctoral degrees in physics, according to her NASA bio. In 1978, the same year she earned her Ph.D., Ride was selected to join NASA’s astronaut corps.

She first flew on space shuttle Challenger for the STS-7 mission, which launched on June 18, 1983. At that time, the U.S. had yet to send a female astronaut into orbit, but two female cosmonauts had gone to space as part of the Soviet space program. Ride flew another mission the following year and had been scheduled to make a third trip to space when the 1986 Challenger disaster forced NASA to suspend the shuttle program. Instead, she served on the commission convened to investigate the accident, as she did again in 2003 after the loss of space shuttle Columbia.

Following her retirement from NASA in 1987 Ride returned to academia. According to her company bio, she became a science fellow at Stanford University and then moved to the University of California, San Diego, as a professor of physics and director of the California Space Institute. (During that time she also wrote a 1989 cover story for Scientific American about the Soviet space program.) She founded Sally Ride Science in 2001 to encourage young students to pursue studies, and ultimately careers, in math and science.

Throughout her post-astronaut years, Ride remained closely involved with NASA. In addition to the two shuttle accident investigation boards, Ride also served on the Augustine commission, a blue-ribbon panel of spaceflight experts convened by President Obama in 2009 to review NASA’s plans for human spaceflight. More recently her company partnered with NASA to administer an outreach and education program called MoonKAM during the GRAIL moon mission. Each of the two GRAIL spacecraft, now in lunar orbit, carries a MoonKAM, a digital camera dedicated for use by middle-school students.

In 1982 Ride married fellow astronaut Steven Hawley, now a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Kansas. They divorced in 1987. According to her company’s Web site, Ride is survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy, the chief operating officer of Sally Ride Science. Together, Ride and O'Shaughnessy wrote several books for school-age children about space exploration and climate change.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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