Tirelessly training to brave a new frontier.
Sally Ride made history as the first American woman in space on June 18, 1983. She was a brave astronaut and a fierce advocate for women in science, who has left behind an impressive legacy.
"Dr. Sally Ride’s legacy as the first American woman in space looms large, but beyond that she worked tirelessly to become a talented engineer, a dedicated advocate for others, and a brave explorer. She continues to inspire us to keep aiming higher."
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Prepared to be an Astronaut
Sally was born and raised in Southern California. As a child and teenager, Sally excelled in her math and science classes at school. She was also an extremely talented tennis player and even briefly considered a career as a professional.
This athleticism helped prepare her to become one of the first female astronauts, as NASA astronaut training is very rigorous both physically and intellectually.
Sally’s training required her to fly jet planes at up to 600 miles per hour and parachute jump into open water, in addition to attending scientific classes. Modern day astronaut training is just as intense, requiring flight training on the same type of jet planes that were used in Sally’s day.
Journey to NASA
Before beginning her astronaut training, Sally was a student at Stanford University where she earned undergraduate degrees in English and physics, and a PhD in astrophysics.
In the final year of her PhD, 1977, Sally answered a newspaper ad from NASA that would change her life forever. This was the first time that NASA was accepting female and minority astronaut applicants.
Dr. Ride was one of 8,000 people who applied. 208 finalists were then chosen to travel to the Johnson Space Center for a week of interviews, medical tests, fitness tests, and psychological examinations. After waiting about seven months, Dr. Ride received the call that she had been selected!
Sally was one of six women chosen for the NASA class of 1978, out of thirty-five total astronaut candidates. The “Thirty-Five New Guys”, as they called themselves, would have to undergo two years of training before being promoted from astronaut candidates to full-fledged astronauts.
As the first six women chosen to become astronauts, Dr. Ride and her colleagues faced intense scrutiny. They were asked many invasive questions about their reproductive organs, their appearances, and their plans to have children. However, they had each other as allies and friendly rivals as they all fought to become the first American woman in space.
What Does it Take to Become an Astronaut?
Nowadays, the astronaut selection process takes closer to two years. In 2020 NASA received over 12,000 applications, and after many interviews only a handful will be chosen for the NASA class of 2021. NASA needs both pilot astronauts and mission specialists. Pilot astronauts act as either commanders or pilots on space flights, meaning they are in charge of directing the crew and controlling the spacecraft. Pilot astronauts are required to have extensive experience flying jets. Because of this, pilot astronauts often come from the military.
On the other hand, a mission specialist’s job is to become an expert in the scientific goal of the mission, and they are required to have a scientific research background. Mission specialists can also be medical doctors who are in charge of the health and safety of the crew, but many come from physics, astronomy, or engineering backgrounds like Sally.
Dr. Ride, Mission Specialist
Dr. Ride was recruited as a mission specialist because of her astrophysics expertise. Specifically, she worked on a robotic arm for the Challenger shuttle that could retrieve and deploy satellites.
She trained tirelessly to learn how to operate the arm, which required both precise hand-eye coordination and detailed engineering knowledge.
She even simulated the weightlessness of space by practicing underwater in scuba gear and aboard a looping plane known affectionately as the “Vomit Comet”. Dr. Ride’s skills and expertise led her to be chosen as the first American woman in space on the June 18, 1983 Challenger mission. She was one of five astronauts on the six-day mission, and used her robotic arm to deploy two communications satellites.
The following year, Sally embarked on her second and final mission, which lasted eight days and was the first mission to carry two women.
The scientific goal of this mission was to conduct observations of Earth. When a satellite used for the observations did not extend its solar panels properly, Sally thought on her feet and deftly maneuvered the Challenger’s robotic arm to solve the problem.
Tragically, two years after Dr. Ride’s time in the Challenger program, a malfunctioning part caused the shuttle to explode 73 seconds after takeoff, killing all the astronauts on board. Dr. Ride was a member of the team that investigated the accident to ensure that nothing like that ever happened again.
In 1987 Sally retired from NASA and went on to work at the University of California, San Diego as a physics professor and director of the California Space Science Institute.
Sally also began to dedicate her time to encouraging young people, especially girls, to get interested in science. She formulated the idea for NASA’s EarthKAM (Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students) project, which gives middle school students the chance to observe Earth from the International Space Station.
She and her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy, also established Sally Ride Science, a nonprofit organization that promotes equity and inclusion in STEM.
Dr. Sally Ride’s legacy as the first American woman in space looms large, but beyond that she worked tirelessly to become a talented engineer, a dedicated advocate for others, and a brave explorer. She continues to inspire us to keep aiming higher.
Photos courtesy of NASA and Sally Ride Science
Written by Ashley Cavanagh
Edited by Katie Fraser, Madelyn Leembruggen, and Caroline Martin
Illustrations by Nicole Naporano
Portrait by Jovana Andrejevic
Sources and additional readings:
Sally Ride by Lynn Sherr
American Woman Who Shattered Space Ceiling from the New York Times
Biography of Sally Ride by National Women's History Museum
Who Was Sally Ride? by NASA
Learn more about space travel and life as an astronaut!
Build (1-1.5 hours): Make your own straw rocket and test its performance.
Create (1.5-2 hours): Sally Ride specialized in operating a robotic arm. Construct a robotic hand from cardboard and see what you can use it to accomplish.
Investigate (15-20 minutes): Try to find the perfect launch parameters with this rocket launch simulator.
Deepen (1-1.5 hours): Why are astronauts "weightless"? What does "zero gravity" really mean? Experience weightlessness for yourself using this falling water experiment.
Imagine (45-60 minutes): Life in space is pretty different from life on Earth. Read about A Day in the Life Aboard the International Space Station!