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Sally Ride's legacy lives in education programs

Posted July 24, 2012

Pioneering astronaut Sally Ride died Monday after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 61.

Ride was born in Encino, Calif., on May 26, 1951, to Dr. Dale Ride, a political science professor, and Joyce Ride, a former teacher. Education was always important in the Ride household, and it came in many forms.

Sally Ride is best known as the first American woman in space but her travels started at age 9 when she, her sister Karen and parents traveled Europe for a year.

She also loved sports, especially tennis which earned her an athletic scholarship at a private high school. For a time, she was ranked 18th in the country as a junior player. She went on to Swarthmore College where encouragement from Billie Jean King led Sally to put school aside to focus on a professional tennis career.

Ride ultimately returned to her studies and graduated from Stanford University with bachelors degrees in physics and English in 1973, a masters in physics in 1975, and PhD in physics in 1978.

NASA put out the call that year for scientists to serve as mission specialists. Ride wasn't just in the right place at the right time to be selected among the 35 of over 8,000 applicants, she was the right candidate. NASA's director of operations, George W.S. Abbey, described Sally as "smart in a very special way." She had the unique ability to not only "think like Einstein ... and bring it to bear where you need it."

Her first astronaut assignment was as CAPCOM, the ground-based astronaut responsible for communicating with the orbiting astronauts, for STS-2 and STS-3. She got her turn on STS-7 as mision specialist.

On that mission, Ride wasn't just the first American women in space, she part of the crew that was first to release and capture a satellite.

Ride also served as mission specialist on the 13th space shuttle flight, STS-41G. She was assigned to STS-61M and began training for the mission which was to deliver a communications satellite to orbit.
That training was cut short when the mission was cancelled in the wake of the loss of Space Shuttle Challenger.

Following the Challenger disaster, Ride was named to the presidential investigative commission along with Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman and Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong. Ride headed commission efforts to understand how operations might have contributed to the accident.

As special assistant to the NASA administrator for long range and strategic planning, she produced "NASA Leadership and America's Future in Space."  The report outlined an ambitious plan for NASA, including a space station, manned lunar outpost, Mars rovers and construction of a manned Mars outpost beginning by 2020.

Ride left NASA in 1987. Over the next decade, she went on to teach physics and space science at the University of California at San Diego, serve as director of the California Space Institute and as a science fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Arms Control.

However, her next move may well be her most lasting contribution to science.

In 2001 Ride, created the San Diego-based Sally Ride Science, an education center focused on motivating young boys and girls to maintain their interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). There was a special emphasis on encouraging girls, noting that many lose their natural interest in STEM topics as they move from elementary to middle school.

Ride's skills were called up on again to find the cause of another terrible tragedy. She briefly returned to NASA in 2003 as a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

Most recently Ride led the GRAIL MoonKam (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students) public outreach program in collaboration with UCSD undergraduate students. Students from around the world submitted target areas on the lunar surface for imaging. Photos returned are then studied in those classrooms.

Her legacy lives on in Sally Ride Science in its afterschool programs, teacher training, and science festivals around the country.

Ride also co-authored seven children's books and produced classroom materials on astronomy, Earth science, climate change, and careers in science.

Ride always took her pioneer status in stride commenting, "It's too bad this is such a big deal. It's too bad our society isn't further along."


Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.

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