The elder child of Dale Burdell Ride and Carol Joyce (née Anderson), Ride was born in Los Angeles, California. She had one sibling, Karen “Bear” Ride, who is a Presbyterian minister. Both parents were elders in the Presbyterian Church. Ride’s mother had worked as a volunteer counselor at a women’s correctional facility. Her father had been a political science professor at Santa Monica College. Ride attended Portola Junior High (now Portola Middle School) and then Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles (now Harvard-Westlake School) on a scholarship. In addition to being interested in science, she was a nationally ranked tennis player. Ride attended Swarthmore College for three semesters, took physics courses at UCLA, and then entered Stanford University as a junior, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English and physics. At Stanford, she earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in physics while doing research on the interaction of X-rays with the interstellar medium.
Ride was one of 8,000 people who answered an advertisement in the Stanford student newspaper seeking applicants for the space program. She was chosen to join NASA in 1978. During her career, Ride served as the ground-based capsule communicator (CapCom) for the second and third space shuttle flights (STS-2 and STS-3) and helped develop the space shuttle’s robot arm.
Prior to her first space flight, she was subject to media attention due to her gender. During a press conference, she was asked questions like, “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?” and “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” Despite this and the historical significance of the mission, Ride insisted that she saw herself in only one way—as an astronaut. On June 18, 1983, she became the first American woman in space as a crew member on space shuttle Challenger for STS-7. She was preceded by two Soviet women, Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. The five-person crew of the STS-7 mission deployed two communications satellites and conducted pharmaceutical experiments. Ride was the first woman to use the robot arm in space and the first to use the arm to retrieve a satellite.
Her second space flight was in 1984, also on board the Challenger. She spent a total of more than 343 hours in space. Ride, who had completed eight months of training for her third flight (STS-61-M, a TDRS deployment mission) when the space shuttle Challenger disaster occurred, was named to the Rogers Commission (the presidential commission investigating the accident) and headed its subcommittee on operations. Following the investigation, Ride was assigned to NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., where she led NASA’s first strategic planning effort, authored a report entitled “NASA Leadership and America’s Future in Space” and founded NASA’s Office of Exploration.
In 1987, Ride left her position in Washington, D.C., to work at the Stanford University Center for International Security and Arms Control. In 1989, she became a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego, and director of the California Space Institute. From the mid-1990s until her death, Ride led two public-outreach programs for NASA — the ISS EarthKAM and GRAIL MoonKAM projects, in cooperation with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and UCSD. The programs allowed middle school students to request images of the Earth and moon. In 1999, she acted in the season 5 finale of Touched by an Angel, titled “Godspeed”. In 2003, she was asked to serve on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. She was the president and CEO of Sally Ride Science, a company she co-founded in 2001 that creates entertaining science programs and publications for upper elementary and middle school students, with a particular focus on girls.
According to Roger Boisjoly, the engineer who warned of the technical problems that led to the Challenger disaster, Ride was the only public figure to show support for him when he went public with his pre-disaster warnings (after the entire workforce of Morton-Thiokol shunned him). Sally Ride hugged him publicly to show her support for his efforts. Ride wrote or co-wrote seven books on space aimed at children, with the goal of encouraging children to study science. Ride endorsed Barack Obama for U.S. President in 2008. She was a member of the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee, an independent review requested by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on May 7, 2009.
Ride died on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, seventeen months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Following cremation, her ashes were interred next to her father at Woodlawn Cemetery, Santa Monica, California.
- May, 26, 1951
- Los Angeles, California
- July, 23, 2012
- La Jolla, California
- Woodlawn Cemetery
- Santa Monica, California