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Tribute: Sally Ride, First American Woman in Space

4 minute read
Jeffrey Kluger

Here’s how Sally Ride knew she was special: The day she was assigned to her first space flight, she was summoned to meet with Chris Kraft. Kraft was the soon-to-retire director of the Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston. But that was just a title. Kraft was already as much NASA symbol as NASA official; he was the man who’d been choosing astronauts and managing missions since the days of Mercury. He was the man who made careers and, in the case of a few unfortunate astronauts who crossed him by fouling up in flight, the man who ended them. He scared the daylights out of any American who had any hope of flying in space.

Ride knew that she wasn’t being called to see Kraft because she’d done something wrong. She was being called because she’d been chosen to be part of the crew of the space shuttle Challenger’s June, 1983 mission — making her the first American woman to fly in space, 20 years almost to the day after Russia’s Valeltina Tereshkova became the first woman ever to do so.

(See pictures of Earth from space.)

“[Kraft] wanted to have a chat with me and make sure I knew what I was getting into before I went on the crew,” Ride said. “I was so dazzled to be on the crew and go into space I remembered very little of what he said.”

Ride, who died Monday at age 61 after a battle with pancreatic cancer, did not dazzle easily. She described her first view of Earth from orbit as “spectacular,” a coin-of-the-realm adjective for astronauts. But beyond that, she kept things clinical, observational. Looking down at Earth from space was “a chance to see our planet as a planet,” said the Stanford grad with the PhD in physics. She spoke not without appreciation for what she was given the opportunity to do, but with a scientist’s conviction that that was an opportunity not to exult but to learn.

Ride flew a second time, in 1984, also aboard Challenger. It was thus fitting that she was named to the panel that investigated the death of her ship after it exploded during ascent in 1986. She was tapped again for mortician’s duty in 2003, after Columbia disintegrated during reentry, and if that was more than even a scientist’s heart could bear without cracking, she didn’t say so. She left NASA in 1987 to return to Stanford and later to teach at the University of California, San Diego. In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science, a company that developed science curricula for students.

Ride was not old enough to have applied for a spot at NASA in the days that women in the space community were either wives, daughters, groupies or spacesuit seamstresses. And that’s a good thing, because the only way she could have made a mark in that world then would have been as a wife, daughter, groupie or seamstress. But she surely was old enough to understand the sting those woman felt; old enough to know that while the NASA of the 1950s made a pro forma gesture of considering female applicants for the astronaut corps, those same women were the object of eye-rolls at best, jokes or disdain at worst. Their applications were accepted simply as an act of bureaucratic box-checking.

By the mid 1970s that had changed just enough that Ride could apply to she shuttle program — one of 8,000 astronaut candidates given consideration, By 1978, she was named part of an incoming astronaut class that included five other women and 29 men. They were referred to around NASA as “the 35 new guys,” and if the six who didn’t quite fit that description minded, they said nothing.

Space has no shortage of icons and giants. Ride — not the first person in space, not even the first woman in space — will never be in the pantheon of Glenn or Armstrong or Gagarin or Leonov or Lovell or Shepard . But she, oddly, holds a more secure historical spot. Kraft once said that every crew he ever flew was, by definition, better than the one before it, because each one had learned from the earlier ones. There’s a fungible quality to men who are evaluated that way — even if that’s the way all exploration progresses.

There was nothing fungible about Sally Ride. When she climbed into Challenger on June 18, 1983 and the hatch was closed and sealed behind her, a far bigger cultural door opened — and every American woman who has flown a military plane or a commercial jet or a spacecraft since followed her through it. Godspeed, Sally Ride.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com