Memories of Sally Ride, first American woman astronaut, dead at 61

Because Sally Ride shattered NASA’s glass ceiling, over 42 other American women were able to fly on subsequent missions. Photo: Sally Ride in space

VIENNA, Va.,  July 23, 2012 — A new star shines in the firmament tonight, and it belongs to the woman who flew closer to heaven than any other in her role as the first American woman astronaut – Sally Ride.  Born in Encino, Calif., in 1951, Ms. Ride succumbed after a long battle with pancreatic cancer today at her home in La Jolla, Ca.

Very few women have inspired young girls and female students as did the attractive brunette, who was not only the first American woman to fly in space, (two Russian women had preceded her) but also the youngest, at 32.

She was always interested in science, but many people are not aware that she was also a nationally ranked tennis player.

When an advertisement was published seeking applicants for the fairly new space program, she was one of over 8,000 people to answer the ad, joining NASA in 1978.

In those early years, she was the ground-based “CapCom” (Capsule Communicator) for the second and third shuttle flights.

Challenger STS-7 Flight

Sally Ride suited up, ready for the Challenger AP

Then on June 18, 1983 she became the first American woman to fly in space on Challenger STS-7.  A physicist, her duties including being the first astronaut to use the robot arm in space and the first one to use that device to retrieve a satellite. 

Ride flew on Challenger a year later, and her career saw her spending more than 343 hours in space. She was lined up in training to be on the third flight, which was cancelled when the shuttle accident occurred.

Sally Ride set the bar for the acceptance of women in space, because of her, over 42 other American women were able to fly on subsequent missions. If there was a glass ceiling in the wild blue yonder, Sally Ride broke it into millions of small fragments. 

It appears Ride was a woman who did not waste words; her few quotes were short and to the point. A wag once asked her if there was any problem sleeping in space. She replied, “It’s easy to sleep floating around - it’s very comfortable. But you have to be careful that you don’t float into somebody or something!”

Commission Service Twice 

After the Columbia Shuttle  disaster in 2003, she was asked to serve on the Presidential commission investigating the explosion, as well as serving on the similar panel following the Challenger explosion. Ride was interested in getting students involved in the space program and felt that if you waited too long in their lives to expose them to it, they would lose interest. 

Sally Ride received the NASA Space Flight Medal as well as the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award. She was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame.

Her company, Sally Ride Science, was begun in 2001 to help find ways for girls and young women to pursue their interests in science and math. Her partner of 27 years, Dr. Tam E. O’Shaughnessy was with her through her 17-month struggle with cancer and is Chief Operating Officer of the Foundation.

Her mother and sister also survive as well as a niece and nephew, along with scores of little girls and young women to whom she is a heroine. 

Sally Ride at controls of the Columbia AP

Sally Ride could beat the odds exploring space and rack up amazing accomplishments, but pancreatic cancer was the foe she could not overcome. Those with that type cancer have a terribly low survival rate, 75% die within five  years. It is very hard to effectively diagnose since there are few warning signs, and by the time diagnosis is completed, it is usually too late to conquer the disease, and its resistance to chemotherapy complicates any type of treatment. 

The famous words of “High Flight,” a poem by a young British pilot, Officer Gillespie Magee, back in World War II, contain words that seem to sum up the wonderful life of Sally Ride:

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air. 

Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,

I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace

Where never lark, or even eagle flew -

And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand and touched the face of God.”

Godspeed, Sally Ride, on your final flight to Heaven.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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