The world has lost a true space pioneer and role model for women in scientific and technical fields. Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, died on 23 July at age 61, after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Although her life was cut too short, Ride lived it to the fullest and affected thousands, if not millions, of people along the way.
Ride joined NASA in 1978—the same year she received a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Stanford University—after responding to a job ad for astronauts in the university’s student newspaper. She broke barriers for women when she flew on board the shuttleChallenger on 18 June 1983. She was aboard the shuttle again in 1984.
“Sally’s historic flight into space captured the nation’s imagination and made her a household name,” read a statement on the website of Sally Ride Science, a company Ride founded to inspire students—especially girls—to consider careers in science, math, engineering, and technology. “She became a symbol of the ability of women to break barriers and a hero to generations of adventurous young girls.”
Besides being a first for women, Ride also became the youngest American astronaut launched into space, at age 32. And she went on to be the only person to sit on both panels that investigated the shuttle accidents in which everyone on board died: theChallenger explosion in 1986 and the Columbia crash in 2003.
During her early days at NASA, Ride patiently endured a lot of awkward questions regarding her gender. Before her first flight, reporters asked whether spaceflight would affect her reproductive organs, if she planned to have children, whether she’d wear a bra or makeup in space, and various other inquiries that today would be considered inappropriate at the very least. What relevance was her choice to wear or not wear lipstick? She was going to space, not a nightclub. I wonder if the male astronauts were ever asked whether they wore boxers or briefs in space?
Ride retired from NASA in 1987, and two years later became a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego, and director of its California Space Institute. She co-wrote seven science books for children, and in 2001 founded Sally Ride Science to further champion a cause she was passionate about: inspiring students, especially girls, to go into scientific fields. The organization, which shares the same goals as IEEE Women in Engineering, has several programs, including science festivals that have students meeting scientists and attending workshops, and science camps, where middle-school girls do hands-on projects.
Among those inspired by Ride was IEEE Fellow Karen Panetta, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Tufts University, in Somerville, Mass. Panetta is also director of the university’s Simulation Research Laboratory and founder of the Nerd Girls program, which is aimed at dispelling negative stereotypes about technical fields and the women who work in them.
“While most people will remember Sally as the first U.S. woman in space, she also embodied the spirit of teamwork, which enabled unimaginable dreams to become reality,” Panetta says. “The trust and respect she and her teammates had for each other is one of history’s most inspirational success stories for the value of gender-diverse teams. Her lifelong commitment to empowering youth to pursue science and technology regardless of gender, ethnic background, or socioeconomic status made her a true national treasure and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) champion.”