Sally Ride, First American Woman in Space, Dies at 61

Sally ride on the flight deck of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1983. (Photo: AP and NASA)Sally Ride -- the first American woman and the youngest American ever to travel into space -- has died at her home near San Diego, California. She was 61.

She had been battling pancreatic cancer for 17 months, her company, Sally Ride Science, said on its website. A private person, she had told only a handful of people about her illness; NASA complied with her request to keep her health issues a secret.

Ride rode the space shuttle Columbia in 1983 when she was just 32. She was a physicist, a science writer, a children's book author, a physics professor, and an inspiration to a generation of women.

"As the first American woman to travel into space, Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model," President Barak Obama said in a statement. "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. 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. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Sally's family and friends."

Born on May 26, 1951, in Encino, California, Sally Kristen Ride had always been fascinated by science, though at one point she considered a career in tennis. She was finishing her Ph.D. in astrophysics at Stanford University -- she had already earned bachelors degrees in physics and English and a masters degree in physics -- when she answered a newspaper ad for astronauts. As she told the New York Times in 1982, she looked at the qualifications spelled out in the ad and decided, "I'm one of those people."

She responded to the ad, applied to the program, and became an astronaut.

"The women's movement had already paved the way, I think, for my coming," she told the New York Times. Still, at the press conference before her first flight on the space shuttle challenger in 1983, she politely answered questions about how being in space might affect appearance (Would she wear a bra or makeup in space?), her emotions (Did she ever cry on the job?) and her chances of motherhood (Would outerspace affect her menstrual cycle?). She endured jokes about how the shuttle launch might be delayed while she searched for a purse to match her shoes (thanks, Johnny Carson), and complied when CBS News' Diane Sawyer asked her to show how the privacy curtain in the shuttle's bathroom worked.

"It's too bad this is such a big deal," she said at a NASA news conference. "It's too bad our society isn't further along."

President Ronald Reagan disagreed.

"Somebody said that the best person for the job was a woman," he told her on the phone after the shuttle landed. "You were the best person for the job."

She spent six days in space in 1983, shooting toward the stars while a crowd of 250,000 watched, wearing T-shirts that said, "Ride, Sally Ride." For her second shuttle mission a year later, she spent eight days in space. She retired from the shuttle program in 1987.

Ride is survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy, as well as her mother, Joyce, her sister, the Reverend Karen "Bear" Scott, her niece, Caitlin, and her nephew, Whitney.

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