From a young girl fascinated by a chemistry set and a small telescope to a tennis prodigy who ultimately soared among the stars, Sally Ride’s extraordinary journey began with curiosity and a thirst for adventure. Without a doubt, Dr. Sally Ride stands as one of the most beloved American heroes in history.
The world knows Sally Ride as the first American woman in space. Considered a male bastion, what Sally did was extraordinary. In the words of US President Barack Obama, Sally not only broke the glass ceiling but blasted through it. Sally was an astronaut, physicist, and educator. She devoted her entire life to helping girls excel in fields like math, science, and engineering. Sally never wanted to be an astronaut just because she had never heard of one. She always said that young girls need to see role models. ‘You can’t be what you can’t see”.
As we begin to study her life and career, we will see that there’s one thing that is constant in her life and that is change. Sally did not limit herself to one dream. From her love for tennis to quitting it for physics, joining NASA, and then leaving NASA to devote herself wholeheartedly to making science and math popular among young girls. Her whole journey is about transitioning from one dream to another. Sally always said that no matter how old you get, dreams can change. Her motto in life was “Evolve as you learn and then grow”.
Sally Kirsten Ride was born on May 26, 1951, in Los Angeles, California, U.S. to parents Dale Ride and Carol Ride. She had a younger sister Karen. She grew up in the Van Nuys and Encino neighborhoods of Los Angeles. She grew up playing with a chemistry set and a small telescope.
She played Volleyball with the neighboring kids. Once while on a vacation to Spain, she played tennis for the first time and instantly fell in love with it. She was a talented and dedicated player. She attended Westlake School for Girls, an exclusive all-girls private school in Los Angeles, on a tennis scholarship. After graduating high school in 1968, Sally went to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. In the fall of 1970, she transferred to Stanford University to continue studying English literature and quantum mechanics. She also played on the women’s tennis team. Ride was extremely good at tennis. She ranked 18 in the country in 1969. She was only 18 years old at that time. Tennis helped her get into the best private school and Stanford. Later, she decided not to pursue tennis professionally as she thought her fitness was not up to the mark of a sportsman. She decided to continue her higher studies in physics. She earned a Master of Science degree in Physics in 1975 and a Doctor of Philosophy in 1978.
Sally loved astronomy since childhood. She followed the American Space Programme throughout the ’60s and ’70s. There was no mention of women being astronauts. Then the unthinkable happened – The 1972 amendment to the civil rights act of 1964. It stated that federal employment must be made free from any discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. As a federal agency, NASA was required to comply. Thus, the inroads into the space agency were made. In the early years of NASA, the astronaut corps was chosen entirely from fighter pilots. When the shuttle program was initiated, NASA decided they wanted astronauts who had backgrounds in science, engineering, and medicine because they wanted to do experiments in space.
In 1977 advertisements for the same were posted. Sally read the announcement in the student newspaper of Stanford University. NASA was looking for astronauts and women could apply. Sally Ride did so immediately and so did eight thousand equally qualified other girls.
Being a nationally ranked athlete and a student of astrophysics helped her chances. The selectors were impressed with her physical fitness and mental strength. Of eight thousand girls that applied, only six made it to the astronaut corps of thirty-five people. In the end, it was Sally Ride who met all the requirements of NASA. She joined NASA in 1978 and at the age of 32, she remains the youngest American to go to space. Rest as they say is history. The mere announcement from NASA made Sally a celebrity. But she did not get carried away and was all the more focused on doing her job to the best of her capabilities. She very well understood the responsibility that lay on her shoulder. She took this opportunity to show all the young girls of America that they can dream and become whatever they want.
Sally was selected as a mission specialist. All the chosen five astronauts followed a diverse regimen of rigorous physical, technical, and classroom training as well as learning all about space and the shuttle. Sally was the robotic arm manipulator.
On June 18, 1983, flying aboard the space shuttle Challenger, Sally Ride became America’s first woman in space. On Merritt Island, Florida at the Kennedy Space Center, people cheered for her, carried signs, and wore T-shirts with “Ride, Sally Ride ” written on them. Ride flew two missions on the space shuttle Challenger STS-7 and STS-41-G. Over the two flights, Ride spent over 343 hours in space, Sally worked for NASA for 9 years and left NAŠA in 1987.
She went back to researching and teaching physics. She worked for two years at Stanford University Centre for International Security and Arms Control, then at the University of California, San Diego, as a professor of physics, primarily researching non-linear optics and Thomson scattering. She served on the committee that investigated the challenges and Columbia space shuttle disasters are the only person to participate in both.
In 2001, Ride co-founded “Sally Ride Science” to encourage and support children’s interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths). They developed science-themed camps and festivals in classes. They worked with more than seven million students, encouraging them to reach for stars. She co-wrote seven books on space aimed at children, with the goal of encouraging them to study science. She wanted to cultivate girls’ interest in science. She wanted them to know that it was natural to dream and very natural to try and turn those dreams into reality.
Sally Ride died on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61 due to pancreatic cancer. Throughout all the media attention she received over the years, she never revealed any details of her personal life. It was only in her obituary that she revealed her partner of 27 years was a woman by the name of Tan O’Shaughnessy.
In 2003 Sally was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame. In 2013, President Obama posthumously awarded Ride The Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2014, Ride was inducted into the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame. In 2018, the US Postal Services issued Sally Ride Stamp. In 2022, US Mint honored Ride’s Legacy as a part of the American Women Quarters Programme.
Sally Ride was a steadfast advocate of equality and diversity. She wanted to be remembered as someone who was not afraid to do what she wanted to do and as someone who takes risks along the way to achieve her goals. In her words, “When you are passionate about something, you can use that passion to shoot for the stars”.
Nidhi Raj is an independent writing professional, storyteller, and mother with a keen interest in women’s issues and International Relations.