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Biography of Sally Ride

Name: Sally Ride
Bith Date: May 26, 1951
Death Date:
Place of Birth: Los Angeles, California, United States
Nationality: American
Gender: Female
Occupations: astronaut, physicist, educator, businesswoman
Sally Ride

Sally Ride (born 1951) is best known as the first American woman sent into outer space. She also served the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in an advisory capacity, being the only astronaut chosen for President Ronald Reagan's Rogers Commission investigating the mid-launch explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in January, 1986, writing official recommendation reports, and creating NASA's Office of Exploration.

Both scientist and professor, Sally Ride has served as a fellow at the Stanford University Center for International Security and Arms Control, a member of the board of directors at Apple Computer Inc., and a space institute director and physics professor at the University of California at San Diego. Ride has chosen to write primarily for children about space travel and exploration. Her commitment to educating the young earned her the Jefferson Award for Public Service from the American Institute for Public Service in 1984, in addition to her National Spaceflight Medals recognizing her two groundbreaking shuttle missions in 1983 and 1984. Newly elected president Bill Clinton chose her as a member of his transition team during the fall of 1992.

Sally Kristen Ride is the older daughter of Dale Burdell and Carol Joyce (Anderson) Ride of Encino, California, and was born May 26, 1951. As author Karen O'Connor describes tomboy Ride in her young reader's book, Sally Ride and the New Astronauts, Sally would race her dad for the sports section of the newspaper when she was only five years old. An active, adventurous, yet also scholarly family, the Rides traveled throughout Europe for a year when Sally was nine and her sister Karen was seven, after Dale took a sabbatical from his political science professorship at Santa Monica Community College. While Karen was inspired to become a minister, in the spirit of her parents, who were elders in their Presbyterian church, Ride's own developing taste for exploration would eventually lead her to apply to the space program almost on a whim. "I don't know why I wanted to do it," she confessed to Newsweek prior to embarking on her first spaceflight.

The opportunity was serendipitous, since the year she began job-hunting marked the first time NASA had opened its space program to applicants since the late 1960s, and the very first time women would not be excluded from consideration. NASA needed to cast a wider net than ever before, as Current Biography disclosed in 1983. The program paid less than private sector counterparts and offered no particular research specialties, unlike most job opportunities in academia. All it took was a return reply postcard, and Ride was in the mood to take those risks. This was, after all, a young lady who could patch up a disabled Toyota with Scotch tape without breaking stride, as one of her friends once discovered. Besides, she had always forged her own way before with the full support of her open-minded family.

Student Sets Own Agenda

From her earliest years in school, Ride was so proficient and efficient at once, she proved to be an outright annoyance to some of her teachers. Though she was a straight-A student, she was easily bored, and her brilliance only came to the fore in high school, when she was introduced to the world of science by her physiology teacher. The impact of this mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Mommaerts, was so profound that Ride would later dedicate her first book primarily to her, as well as the fallen crew of the Challenger. While she was adaptable to all forms of sport, playing tennis was Ride's most outstanding talent, which she had developed since the age of ten. Under the tutelage of a four-time U.S. Open champion, Ride eventually ranked eighteenth nationally on the junior circuit. Her ability won her a partial scholarship to Westlake School for Girls, a prep school in Los Angeles. After graduating from there in 1968, Ride preferred to work on her game full time instead of the physics program at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, where she had originally enrolled. It was only after Ride had fully tested her dedication to the game that she decided against a professional career, even though tennis pro Billie Jean King had once told her it was within her grasp. Back in California as an undergraduate student at Stanford University, Ride followed her burgeoning love for Shakespeare to a double major, receiving B.S. and B.A. degrees in tandem by 1973. She narrowed her focus to physics for her masters, also from Stanford, awarded in 1975. Work toward her dissertation continued at Stanford; she submitted "The Interaction of X-Rays with the Interstellar Medium" in 1978.

Ride was just finishing her Ph.D. candidacy in physics, astronomy, and astrophysics at Stanford, working as a research assistant, when she got the call from NASA. She became one of thirty-five chosen from an original field of applicants numbering eight thousand for the spaceflight training of 1978. "Why I was selected remains a complete mystery," she later admitted to John Grossmann in a 1985 interview in Health. "None of us has ever been told." Even after three years of studying X-ray astrophysics, Ride had to go back to the classroom to gain skills to be part of a team of astronauts. The program included basic science and math, meteorology, guidance, navigation, and computers as well as flight training on a T-38 jet trainer and other operational simulations. Ride was selected as part of the ground-support crew for the second (November, 1981) and third (March, 1982) shuttle flights, her duties including the role of "capcom," or capsule communicator, relaying commands from the ground to the shuttle crew. These experiences prepared her to be an astronaut.

A Series of NASA Firsts

Ride would subsequently become, at thirty-one, the youngest person sent into orbit as well as the first American woman in space, the first American woman to make two spaceflights, and, coincidentally, the first astronaut to marry another astronaut in active duty. She and Steven Alan Hawley were married at the groom's family home in Kansas on July 26, 1982. Hawley, a Ph.D. from the University of California, had joined NASA with a background in astronomy and astrophysics. When asked during a hearing by Congressman Larry Winn, Jr., of the House Committee on Science and Technology, how she would feel when Hawley was in space while she remained earthbound, Ride replied, "I am going to be a very interested observer." The pair were eventually divorced.

Ride points to her fellow female astronauts Anna Fisher, Shannon Lucid , Judith Resnik, Margaret Seddon, and Kathryn Sullivan with pride. Since these women were chosen for training, Ride's own experience could not be dismissed as tokenism, which had been the unfortunate fate of the first woman in orbit, the Soviet Union's Valentina Tereshkova, a textile worker. Ride expressed her concern to Newsweek reporter Pamela Abramson in the week before her initial shuttle trip. "It's important to me that people don't think I was picked for the flight because I am a woman and it's time for NASA to send one."

From June 18 to June 24, 1983, flight STS-7 of the space shuttle Challenger launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, orbited the Earth for six days, returned to Earth, and landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Among the shuttle team's missions were the deployment of international satellites and numerous research experiments supplied by a range of groups, from a naval research lab to various high school students. With Ride operating the shuttle's robot arm in cooperation with Colonel John M. Fabian of the U.S. Air Force, the first satellite deployment and retrieval using such an arm was successfully performed in space during the flight.

Ride was also chosen for Challenger flight STS-41G, which transpired between October 5 and October 13, 1984. This time, the robot arm was put to some unusual applications, including "ice-busting" on the shuttle's exterior and readjusting a radar antenna. According to Henry S. F. Cooper, Jr., in his book Before Lift-off, fellow team member Ted Browder felt that because Ride was so resourceful and willing to take the initiative, less experienced astronauts on the flight might come to depend upon her rather than develop their own skills, but this mission also met with great success. Objectives during this longer period in orbit covered scientific observations of the Earth, demonstrations of potential satellite refueling techniques, and deployment of a satellite. As STS-7 had been, STS-41G was led by Captain Robert L. Crippen of the U.S. Navy to a smooth landing, this time in Florida.

Ride had been chosen for a third scheduled flight, but training was cut short in January, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in midair shortly after takeoff. The twelve-foot rubber O-rings that serve as washers between steel segments of the rocket boosters, already considered problematic, failed under stress, killing the entire crew. Judy Resnik, one of the victims, had flown as a rookie astronaut on STS-41G. Ride remembered her in Ms. magazine as empathetic, sharing "the same feelings that there was good news and bad news in being accepted to be the first one." As revealed a few months later in the Chicago Tribune, program members at NASA began to feel that their safety had been willfully compromised without their knowledge. "I think that we may have been misleading people into thinking that this is a routine operation," Ride was quoted as saying.

Responds to Challenger Tragedy

Ride herself tried to remedy that misconception with her subsequent work on the Rogers Commission and as special assistant for long-range and strategic planning to NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher in Washington, D.C., during 1986 and 1987. In keeping with the Rogers Commission recommendations, which Ride helped to shape, especially regarding the inclusion of astronauts at management levels, Robert Crippen was eventually made Deputy Director for Space Shuttle Operations in Washington, D.C., as well.

As leader of a task force on the future of the space program, Ride wrote Leadership and America's Future in Space. According to Aviation Week and Space Technology, this status report initiated a proposal to redefine NASA goals as a means to prevent the "space race" mentality that might pressure management and personnel into taking untoward risks. "A single goal is not a panacea," the work stated in its preface. "The problems facing the space program must be met head-on, not oversimplified." The overall thrust of NASA's agenda, Ride suggested, should take environmental and international research goals into consideration. A pledge to inform the public and capture the interest of youngsters should be taken as a given. Ride cited a 1986 work decrying the lack of math and science proficiency among American high school graduates, a mere six percent of whom are fluent in these fields, compared to up to ninety percent in other nations.

Top Priority: Educating Children

While with NASA, Ride traveled with fellow corps members to speak to high school and college students on a monthly basis. As former English tutor Joyce Ride once told a Boston Globe reporter, her daughter had developed scientific interests she herself harbored in younger days, before encountering a wall of silence in a college physics class as a coed at the University of California in Los Angeles. As Joyce remarked, she and the only other young woman in the class were "nonpersons." Speaking at Smith College in 1985, Sally Ride announced that encouraging women to enter math and science disciplines was her "personal crusade." Ride noted in Publishers Weekly the next year that her ambition to write children's books had been met with some dismay by publishing houses more in the mood to read an autobiography targeted for an adult audience. Her youth-oriented books were both written with childhood friends. Susan Okie, coauthor of To Space and Back, eventually became a journalist with the Washington Post.Voyager coauthor Tam O'Shaughnessy, once a fellow competition tennis player, grew up to develop workshops on scientific teaching skills.

Ride left NASA in 1987 for Stanford's Center for International Security and Arms Control. In 1989, she became director of the California Space Institute (CalSpace) and a physics professor at the University of California at San Diego. In the summer of 1999 Ride joined the board of directors of, an Internet site devoted to news and information on the cosmos and the space industry. In September 1999 she became president of the company, remaining in that position until September 2000. Ride's next endeavour was founding and leading EarthKAM, an Internet-based NASA project that allows schoolchildren to take and download photos of the Earth from space. Her most recent project is Imaginary Lines, which provides support for girls interested in science, math, or technology. Ride has also lent her name to, an online science club for elementary and middle-school-aged girls. She has flown Grumman Tiger aircraft in her spare time since getting her pilot's license.

Ride remains a professor of physics at UCSD today.

Associated Organizations

Associated Events

Challenger Space Shuttle Accident, 1986

Historical Context

  • The Life and Times of Sally Ride (1951-)
  • At the time of Ride's birth:
  • 22nd Amendment limited U.S. presidents to two terms
  • Harry S. Truman was 33rd U.S. President
  • Gen. MacArthur relieved of command of U.S. troops in Korea
  • New Jersey Turnpike opened
  • J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye was published
  • The times:
  • 1950-1953: Korean War
  • Mid-1950s-1970s: Pop Art
  • 1957-1975: Vietnam War
  • 1960-present: Postmodernist Period in American Literature
  • 1965-present: Postmodern Period in English Literature
  • 1967-1970: Nigerian Civil War
  • 1971: Pakistan Civil War
  • 1973: Israeli-Arab War
  • 1982: Falkland War
  • 1983: American Invasion of Grenada
  • Ride's contemporaries:
  • Amy Tan (1952-) American writer
  • John Zorn (1954-) American country artist
  • Mel Gibson (1956-) American actor and director
  • Mae C. Jemison (1956-) American astronaut
  • Emma Thompson (1959-) British actress
  • Reggie White (1961-) American football player
  • Rosie O'Donnell (1962-) American actress
  • Selected world events:
  • 1952: Great Britain's George VI died
  • 1955: Winston Churchill resigned as British prime minister
  • 1958: Guinea gained independence from France
  • 1963: Pope John XXIII died
  • 1969: Yasser Arafat elected chair of executive committee of PLO
  • 1971: Idi Amin seized power in Uganda
  • 1975: Karen Ann Quinlan overdosed on drugs, lapses into coma
  • 1977: 10-year ban on capital punishment in the U.S. ended
  • 1979: Margaret Thatcher became England's first female prime minister
  • 1982: Barney Clark received first artificial heart

Further Reading

  • Astronauts and Cosmonauts Biographical and Statistical Data, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989.
  • Cooper, Henry S. F., Jr., Before Lift-off, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.
  • Current Biography, H. W. Wilson, 1983, pp. 318-21.
  • Hearing before the Committee on Science and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives, Ninety-eighth Congress, First Session, July 19, 1983, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983.
  • O'Connor, Karen, Sally Ride and the New Astronauts: Scientists in Space, F. Watts, 1983.
  • Adler, Jerry, and Pamela Abramson, "Sally Ride: Ready for Liftoff," in Newsweek, June 13, 1983, pp. 36-40, 45, 49, 51.
  • Caldwell, Jean, "Astronaut Ride Urges Women to Study Math," in Boston Globe, June 30, 1985, pp. B90, B92.
  • Covault, Craig, "Ride Panel Calls for Aggressive Action to Assert U.S. Leadership in Space," in Aviation Week and Space Technology, August 24, 1987, pp. 26-27.
  • Goodwin, Irwin, "Sally Ride to Leave NASA Orbit; Exodus at NSF," in Physics Today, July, 1987, p. 45.
  • Grossmann, John, "Sally Ride, Ph.D.," in Health, August, 1985, pp. 73-74, 76.
  • Ingwerson, Marshall, "Clinton Transition Team Takes on Pragmatic Cast," in Christian Science Monitor, November 30, 1992, p. 3.
  • Lowther, William, "A High Ride through the Sex Barrier," in Maclean's, June 27, 1983, pp. 40-41.
  • Peterson, Sarah, "Just Another Astronaut," in U.S. News and World Report, November 29, 1982, pp. 50-51.
  • Roback, Diane, "Sally Ride: Astronaut and Now Author," in Publishers Weekly, November 28, 1986, pp. 42, 44.
  • Rowley, Storer, and Michael Tackett, "Internal Memo Charges NASA Compromised Safety," in Chicago Tribune, March 9, 1986, section 1, p. 8.
  • Sherr, Lynn, "Remembering Judy: The Five Women Astronauts Who Trained with Judy Resnik Remember Her ... and That Day," in Ms., June, 1986, p. 57.
  • Sherr, "A Mission to Planet Earth: Astronaut Sally Ride Talks to Lynn Sherr about Peaceful Uses of Space," in Ms., July/August, 1987, pp. 180-81.
  • Starchild: A Learning Center for Young Astronomers, "Dr. Sally Ride," at: (March 11, 2002).
  • University of California at San Diego, Physics Department, "Sally K. Ride," at: (March 11, 2002).
  •, "Sally Kristen Ride: First American Woman in Space," at: (March 12, 2002).
  • NASAQuest: Women of NASA, "Sally Ride," at: (March 12, 2002).

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