x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Sally Ride, America's first woman in space, dies

Astronaut made historic flight aboard Challenger in 1983.

US astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space as a mission specialist on STS-7 when it launched on June 18, 1983.
US astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space as a mission specialist on STS-7 when it launched on June 18, 1983.

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA // Sally Ride loved everything about space. What she didn't like was being the first American woman to experience it. It took years - if not decades - for her to get comfortable with her galactic status.

What drew her out was her San Diego-based education company, Sally Ride Science, which promotes science and math careers for girls and young women. She was determined to give back and she did, a thousand times, over before her death from pancreatic cancer on Monday at age 61.

The Soviet Union had been lofting female cosmonauts into orbit going back to the flight of Valentina Tereshkova in 1963, who orbited the Earth for almost three days.

Ride burst on to the public stage 20 years later when Nasa chose her to be the nation's first woman in space.

With her catchy name and rock-solid science credentials, she inspired females worldwide with her historic shuttle flight in 1983 - five years after she and five other women gained entry to Nasa's exclusively male astronaut club.

Some of those girls who looked up to Ride went on to become astronauts themselves. Ride, a physicist, proved that women could be equal partners in space and that they, too, could aspire to such heights.

Ride was intensely private, though, and spurned the media.

Her astronaut ex-husband, Steve Hawley, recalled on Monday how she found herself "a very public persona" and "it was a role in which she was never fully comfortable".

"While she never enjoyed being a celebrity, she recognised that it gave her the opportunity to encourage children, particularly young girls, to reach their full potential," Mr Hawley said.

Ride flew just twice in space, both times aboard the Challenger. A third shot at orbit vanished when the Challenger blew up. She found herself investigating the 1986 launch accident and in 2003 was back on a presidential panel looking into Columbia's destruction during its trip back to Earth. The echoes, as she put it, came in loud and clear.

She lamented the fact that on the 20th anniversary of her record-breaking flight, she was presiding over yet another shuttle tragedy.

Yet she said she would jump at the chance to fly again on a shuttle, even after such horrific events, provided she could skip all the hard work that went into a mission.

There were times, though, when she wished she hadn't been first. Her female colleagues back then said they were glad it was not them.

The scrutiny, in and outside Nasa, was off the scale. Ride was bombarded with sexist questions by reporters before her maiden voyage.

One newsman asked whether she wept when things went wrong. Another asked if she planned to have children, a third wondered if she would wear a bra in space. "There is no sag in zero-g," she replied.

At one point, Ride complained: "It's too bad this society isn't further along and this is still such a big deal".

She refused a request for an interview on the 10-year anniversary of her flight, but accepted a chance at reminiscing on the 20th.

"It was a huge honour," Ride said in 2003. "On the other hand, it sure did complicate things. I'm the sort of person who likes to be able to just walk into the supermarket and not be recognised."

Ride was encouraging and highly supportive when astronaut Eileen Collins became the first female shuttle pilot and, consequently, commander back in the 1990s.

Collins was among the young women inspired by Ride's courageous journey.

"Sally left us too soon," Ms Collins said in a statement put out by Nasa. "God Speed Sally, you will be greatly missed."