Sally Ride, who nurtured her interest in science by playing with a chemistry set and telescope as a child and went on to become the first American woman in space, died Monday in La Jolla at the age of 61 after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer.
Ride, who earned a tennis scholarship to Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles, soared into history on June 18, 1983, when she blasted off as a member of the crew aboard the space shuttle Challenger. She also headed San Diego-based Sally Ride Science, a science-education company dedicated to supporting girls’ and boys’ interests in science, math and technology.
In 2007 Culver City Middle School students reached the finals of the Sally Ride Toy Challenge and traveled to San Diego with their project. You can see the video of their project here.
Sally Ride Science co-founder Dr. Karen Flammer and research physicist at UC San Diego said Ride, a longtime La Jolla resident really had a passion to inspire students to pursue math and sciences.
“She had such a huge impact across the country and locally,” said Flammer. “She was a role model.”
Ride, who died at her home, had not made many public appearances in the past year. She asked for a life celebration for family, friends and NASA colleagues to be held after her death. Sally Ride Science will plan this celebration in the “near future.”
Flammer fondly remembered “all nighters” with Ride planning educational programs and working with UCSD students.
“Her passion was infectious. It really changed my career,” said Flammer.
UC San Diego Chancellor Marye Anne Fox released the following statement on Monday afternoon, “She was the epitome of bravery and courage. She dedicated her life and career to advancing science and technology, and encouraging young students to reach for the stars."
Ride joined UC San Diego's faculty in 1989 in the physics department. She retired as a full professor in 2007. The university continues to host the Sally Ride Science Festival annually on campus.
"We are grateful for the legacy she leaves, through her myriad accomplishments as a scientist, teacher, mentor and friend, and her leadership in establishing the Sally Ride Science Festival, which has motivated thousands of students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math," said Fox in a release.
"Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism, and literally changed the face of America's space program," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "The nation has lost one of its finest leaders, teachers and explorers. Our thoughts and prayers are with Sally's family and the many she inspired. She will be missed, but her star will always shine brightly."
President Barack Obama called Ride "a national hero and a powerful role model."
"She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars and later fought tirelessly to help them get there by advocating for a greater focus on science and math in our schools," Obama said. "Sally's life showed us that there are no limits to what we can achieve and I have no doubt that her legacy will endure for years to come."
Ride was working on her doctoral degree in physics at Stanford University in 1977 when she responded to an advertisement from NASA, which was looking for applicants to its astronaut program. She was among about 8,000 people who applied, and she was among 35 who were chosen.
She worked as a member of the ground crew for two missions of the space shuttle Columbia before being chosen as a member of the crew for the historic Challenger flight.
"The fact that I was going to be the first American woman to go into space carried huge expectations along with it," Ride said in a 2008 interview cited on NASA's website. "... 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. 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."
Ride flew twice aboard the shuttle Challenger and was assigned to a third shuttle flight, but the program was placed on hold after Challenger exploded shortly after launch in January 1986. Ride served on the presidential commission that investigated the explosion.
She retired from NASA in 1987. Two years later, she joined the faculty at UC San Diego as a professor of physics and director of the California Space Institute. She founded Sally Ride Science in 2001 to encourage kids to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
Ride is survived by Tam O'Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years; her mother Joyce; sister Bear; niece Caitlin; and nephew Whitney.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Sally Ride Pancreatic Cancer Initiative. Checks should be made out to: UCSD Foundation. Also, in either the memo line or in an enclosed note please state that the gift is made in memory of Sally Ride or to the Sally Ride Pancreatic Cancer Initiative (Fund 4191). Mail checks to Pam Werner, Executive Director of Development, UCSD Health Sciences Dev., 9500 Gilman Dr., #0853, La Jolla, CA 92093-0853. If you prefer using a credit card, please call Pam Werner at 858.246.1556.
– City News Service contributed to this article.