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Sally Ride: Breaking Barriers, Blazing Trails

CAP recognizes Women's History Month with a profile of pioneering astronaut Sally Ride.

Some barriers are made to be broken. Sally Ride not only broke barriers, she also helped pave the way for others, especially girls and women to follow. Born May 26, 1951, in Encino, California, she and her sister were both encouraged to pursue their interests.

Ride was an avid tennis player growing up, ranking in the top 20 nationally on the Junior Circuit. After graduating from high school, she briefly pursued a professional tennis career before deciding that college was a better decision. According to Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner, Ride once said “things might have been different if I’d had a better forehand.”

In 1973 she earned a Bachelor of Science in physics and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Stanford University. She continued to study physics at Stanford, earning her Master of Science degree in 1975 and Ph.D. in 1978.

The passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act in 1972 forced NASA to consider women and minorities for all roles in space flight. In 1977, an ad in the Sandford Daily. “NASA to Recruit Women,” caught Ride’s attention and prompted her to apply immediately. NASA’s astronaut class of ’78 included six women.

During training Ride quietly began making a name for herself. She served as CAPCOM (capsule communicator), being the only person at mission control allowed to talk directly with the astronauts for the second (November 1981) and third (March 1982) shuttle flights. She was also involved in the development of the mechanical arm on the space shuttle.

On June 18, 1983, Ride became the first American woman to fly in space with the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger (STS-7). During this mission she launched two communication satellites, conducted experiments and operated the mechanical arm.

Challenger mission STS-41G in October 1984 brought another first for Ride, as she became the first woman to fly into space twice. It was also the first mission with two female crew members. Kathryn D. Sullivan also became the first American woman to conduct a spacewalk during this mission.

After the Challenger exploded during launch Jan. 28, 1986, Ride served on the Rogers Commission investigating the cause of the accident. She would later be part of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board after Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry Feb. 1, 2003.

After leaving NASA, Ride continued to encourage others to study science and math, especially girls and young women. She served as the director of the California Space Institute and as a professor of physics at the University of California San Diego.

In 2001, Ride and her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, cofounded Sally Ride Science at the University of California San Diego. The two also co-authored seven science and space books for children.

After a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer Ride died July 23, 2012. However, her legacy continues. These are just a few of the honors recognizing her achievements during her life and paying tribute to her continued influence on and inspiration for future generations:

  • In November 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
  • The U.S. Navy named a research vessel after her.
  • She was featured on a postage stamp in 2018.
  • In 2019, Civil Air Patrol renamed Cadet Achievement 15 in her honor.

Learn more:

Sally Ride Science

Leadership and America’s Future in Space, also known as the Ride Report


Honoring Sally

Reach for the Stars with Sally Ride