The Soviet Union launched the first woman into space in 1963. Though Valentina Tereshkova’s only qualification for spaceflight was as a skilled amateur parachutist, she spent three days orbiting the Earth alone in Vostok 6 – more time in space than all of the NASA astronauts combined up to that point.
Tereshkova’s lack of aircraft training wasn’t a liability. The Vostok 6 flight was largely under automatic control, her only responsibility was to manually adjust the spacecraft’s orientation while in orbit. Otherwise she was to keep detailed notes and take photographs. Her parachuting experience, however, was vital. Vostok was not designed to make a soft landing. As the spacecraft fell to Earth following reentry, Tereshkova ejected from the capsule and descended separately using her own personal parachute. She returned to Earth a national hero.
It took twenty years for NASA to add some diversity to their white male cadre of astronauts in space. On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to be launched into orbit and three months later, on August 30, 1983, Guy Bluford became the first African American man to do so.
Like Valentina Tereshkova, Sally Ride was not an experienced pilot, nor was she a parachutist. Yet her role on the Space Shuttle Program was to demand other of her skills. She was an outstanding athlete and a nationally ranked amateur tennis player. She graduated from Stanford University with both a Master of Science and a Doctorate in Physics.
While she was at Stanford, NASA put out a call for its next class of astronauts and Dr. Ride (as well as 8,000 other men and women) applied. She was one of the 35 candidates ultimately chosen, and six of them were women – the first ever female American astronauts. It was to be one of the most accomplished and celebrated classes of astronauts in American history.
Sally Ride’s first spaceflight was aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger (STS 7) launched from the Kennedy Space Center on June 18, 1983. This mission made her the first American woman to travel to space. She was one of a five person crew, led by experienced commander Bob Crippen who had flown the very first Shuttle launch into orbit in April of 1981.
Sally Ride was also the first woman to use the Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS) arm, which she had helped design, to retrieve a satellite and return it to the Shuttle’s cargo bay. She and her crewmates spent just over 6 days in orbit and landed at Edwards Air Force Base, California, on June 24, 1983.
Dr. Ride’s second flight was also on board Challenger on the thirteenth launch of a Space Shuttle on October 5, 1984 (STS 41-G). Once again, Bob Crippen served as commander, this time of a seven person crew, the largest crew of astronauts to fly on a single spacecraft up to that time.
This mission accomplished a number of firsts: the first crew with two women (Sally Ride and her astronaut classmate Kathryn Sullivan), and the first spacewalk by an American woman (Dr. Sullivan earned that honor).
On this flight, as on her earlier one on STS 7, Dr. Ride contributed to numerous science, technology and physics research projects conducted by the crew, all of which drew upon her specialized skills in the sciences. The crew spent more than 8 days in space before returning to the Kennedy Space Center on October 13, 1984.
Sally Ride was scheduled for yet a third flight on Challenger (Mission STS 61-M) planned for July of 1986. The mission was terminated when Challenger exploded just after liftoff on January 28, 1986. Dr. Ride later became the only person to serve on the special commissions investigating both the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and the later destruction during reentry of the Space Shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003.
After leaving NASA, Dr. Ride became director of the California Space Institute, and professor of physics, at the University of California, San Diego. In 2001, she founded a company, Sally Ride Science, to encourage young women to pursue careers in science, math and technology.
Astronaut and Physicist Sally Ride died of pancreatic cancer on July 23, 2012.
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