Sally Ride speaks with mission control aboard the Challenger in June 1983. (AFP)
July 24: Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, died yesterday at her home in San Diego. She was 61.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, her company, Sally Ride Science, announced on its website. Ride, a physicist who was accepted into the space programme in 1978 after she answered a newspaper ad for astronauts, flew on the shuttle Challenger on June 18, 1983, and on a second mission in 1984. At 32, she was also the youngest American in space.
She later became the only person to sit on both panels investigating the catastrophic shuttle accidents that killed all astronauts on board — the Challenger explosion in 1986 and the Columbia crash in 2003.
Ride was finishing studies at Stanford University — she had degrees in physics and astrophysics (and also English) — and looking for a job when she saw Nasa’s advertisement. She looked at the qualifications and said, “I’m one of those people,” she told The New York Times in 1982.
She applied, and made the cut. “The women’s movement had already paved the way, I think, for my coming,” she said.
By the time she began studying laser physics at Stanford, women had already broken through into the physics department, once a boys’ club. And when she applied to the space programme, Nasa had already made a commitment to admit women. But there were still rough spots. Speaking to reporters before the first shuttle flight, Ride — chosen in part because she was known for keeping her cool under stress — politely endured a barrage of questions focused on her sex: Would spaceflight affect her reproductive organs? Did she plan to have children? Would she wear a bra or makeup in space? Did she cry on the job? How would she deal with menstruation in space?
The CBS News reporter Diane Sawyer asked her to demonstrate a newly installed privacy curtain around the shuttle’s toilet. On The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson joked that the shuttle flight would be delayed because Ride had to find a purse to match her shoes.
At a Nasa news conference, Ride said: “It’s too bad this is such a big deal. It’s too bad our society isn’t further along.”
The Soviets had already sent two women into space. When one came aboard a space station, a male cosmonaut welcomed her by saying the kitchen and an apron were all ready for her.
In her early days at Nasa, Ride trained in parachute jumping, water survival, weightlessness and the huge G-forces of a rocket launch. She learned to fly a jet plane. She also switched from physics to engineering and helped in the development of a robotic arm for the space shuttle.
The Challenger commander, Robert L. Crippen, chose her for the 1983 mission in part because of her expertise with the device. She was part of a crew of five that spent about six days in space, during which she used the arm to deploy and retrieve a satellite.
At Cape Canaveral, many in the crowd of 250,000 that watched the launching wore T-shirts that said, “Ride, Sally Ride” — from the lyrics of the song Mustang Sally.
The next day, Gloria Steinem, editor of Ms. magazine at the time, said: “Millions of little girls are going to sit by their television sets and see they can be astronauts, heroes, explorers and scientists.” When the shuttle landed, Ride told reporters: “I’m sure it was the most fun that I’ll ever have in my life.”
Her next mission, in 1984, lasted about eight days. She was on the roster for another shuttle flight before the Challenger blew up on January 28, 1986, 73 seconds after taking off from Cape Canaveral. But the programme was immediately suspended, and she retired the next year.
As a member of the panel appointed by President Ronald Reagan to investigate the accident, Ride gained a reputation for asking tough questions. The panel learned from testimony and other evidence that there had been signs of trouble on earlier Challenger flights, but that they had been dismissed as not critical. Ride told a colleague it was difficult not to be angered by the findings.
One witness was Roger Boisjoly, an engineer who had worked for the company that made the shuttle’s rocket boosters and who had been shunned by colleagues for revealing that he had warned his bosses and Nasa that the boosters’ seals, called -rings, could fail in cold weather. The Challenger had taken off on a cold morning.
After his testimony, Ride, who was known to be reserved and reticent, publicly hugged him. She was the only panelist to offer him support. Boisjoly, who died in January, said her gesture had helped sustain him during a troubled time.
In 2003, after sitting on a shuttle-disaster panel for the second time, Ride said in an interview with The Times that part of the problem at Nasa was that people had forgotten some of the lessons learned from the Challenger accident.