#WomensHistoryMonth: Dr. Sally Ride

Dr. Sally Ride, the trailblazing astronaut and physicist, defied gravity with her historic journeys into space and advocacy for gender equality in STEM fields. Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Ride was the first American woman and the youngest American astronaut to go to space, completing her first space flight in 1983. During her career at NASA, Ride helped create essential scientific instruments, including the “robotic arm,” completed two space flights, founded NASA’s Office of Exploration and Strategic Planning efforts, and sat on two space accident investigation boards, the only person in American History to do so. 

After ending her history-making career at NASA, Ride turned to an award-winning career in academia and government work, including serving as a Fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Arms Control, a physics professor at the University of California San Diego, the Director of the University of California’s California Space Institute, and a member of the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee. She also published several children’s books on female empowerment and science, as well as founded her own non-profit, Sally Ride Science, which encourages young people, especially young girls, to pursue careers in STEM. As a result of her efforts, Ride was inducted into the National Women Hall of Fame and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. 

Sally Ride inspires young girls everywhere, not just because of the glass ceilings she broke in aeronautics but because of her continued display of tenacity and her strength of character. Ride was accepted into NASA’s 1978 Astronautical Class after the role was opened to women for the first time that year. Out of 8,000 applicants, she was one of only six women offered the position, a role she was awarded after answering an advertisement in a newspaper. Both a skilled scientist and a former professional tennis player, Ride was chosen for flight aboard the Challenger’s STS-7 Mission because of her scientific brilliance, athleticism, and ability to work with others. Despite her soft-spokenness, Ride made significant scientific contributions and took on leadership roles, helping NASA improve its conditions for astronauts and female employees. While investigating the Challenger explosion of 1986, the first fatal US in-flight space accident, Ride authored “NASA Leadership and America’s Future in Space,” a report that sought to hold NASA accountable for its leadership failures and improve the Administration’s efficacy. Even after leaving NASA, Sally used her time to inspire and educate young people to pursue careers in STEM. While Ride’s incredible and historic career is inspirational, her continued efforts to support others and improve her craft inspire millions of others and me to do the same.  

Despite her remarkable achievements, Sally was not a stranger to being the only woman in a room. While completing her undergraduate degree, she was the only female physics major, and in 1983 she was the only woman on a five-person mission to space. In her pre-launch interviews, Ride had to face derogatory questions and assumptions, with reporters asking her if the flight would impact her fertility and if she cried when things didn't go as planned at work. In response, Sally maintained that she was an astronaut, not just a female astronaut, and admonished that “society isn't further along and that this is such a big deal.” Infamously and humorously, NASA Engineers tried to pack her a makeup bag and 100 tampons for her first mission, which only lasted six days. Reflecting on her historic career in 2008, Ride said, “The fact that I was going to be the first American woman to go into space carried huge expectations along with it.” However, Sally constantly exceeded expectations in her career, using her post-space travel fame to bring light to gender equality issues and women’s education. She used her position at NASA to push the Administration into new territory and equality. 

While I am not a scientist, I am thankful for Sally Ride’s remarkable accomplishments in pushing the boundaries of the final frontier and the possibilities for women on Earth. Sally’s high-profile flight put women’s strength and tenacity on the world stage, and her continued leadership helped make space travel safer and more accessible for all astronauts. Even after her passing, Sally Ride’s legacy lives on through her non-profit, which has allowed young girls to explore and expand their passion for space exploration while giving them the tools to be successful in STEM. I am forever inspired by her example of leadership, teamwork, and determination, both in space and on Earth.