After responding to a newspaper ad looking for astronauts, Sally Ride found herself a bonafide member of NASA in 1978. Back then, we didn’t have a space shuttle and there had only been two women in space, both of them Russian. Throughout her amazing career as an astronaut, Sally Ride put up with a lot of nonsense, helped develop indispensable technology, and amazed the hell out of the whole world.
Today, on what would have been her 63rd birthday, we’re celebrating an awesome pioneer who was taken from us too soon.
Sally Kristen Ride hailed from Encino, California and was an incredibly bright, athletic student. Before becoming a physicist, Ride was briefly interested in playing professional tennis, and even helped pay for prep school with a tennis scholarship! How lucky we are that she traded in her dreams of playing at Wimbledon in favor of riding spaceships into orbit. Though initially part of the ground control team for the space shuttle program, Ride eventually got to go into space as a mission specialist aboard the Challenger. The date was June 18th, 1983—until Ride’s trailblazing flight, no American woman had ever flown in space.
As part of the team who helped develop and design the space shuttle’s robotic arm, Ride was responsible for the first deployment and retrieval of a satellite using said arm. Though set to be part of a third space flight, Ride was grounded (along with the space shuttle program) in the wake of the Challenger disaster in 1986.
Being NASA’s first woman in space meant that Sally Ride had to put up with some truly inane questions, like being asked whether she would “weep when you get things wrong on the job?” In a candid interview years later, Ride plainly stated that she simply was “putting one foot in front of the other” to get through the mission. While aware of her position in American history, she did not let it affect the quality of her work for NASA and her main motivation was always to do the job she was trained to do to the best of her ability.
Ride was also an author of several children’s book, post-NASA, many of which were collaborations with her life partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy. And though this was not revealed to the public in her lifetime, this fact makes Sally Ride not only the first woman in space, but also the first known LGBT astronaut.
Tragically, we lost Sally Ride to pancreatic cancer in July of 2012. In honor of her achievements and amazing contributions to the space program, Ride has been posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama, along with the following tribute:
“We remember Sally Ride not just as a national hero, but as a role model to generations of young women. Sally inspired us to reach for the stars, and she advocated for a greater focus on the science, technology, engineering and math that would help us get there. Sally showed us that there are no limits to what we can achieve, and I look forward to welcoming her family to the White House as we celebrate her life and legacy.”
We all see our potential in a different way, thanks to pioneers like Sally Ride, and while her legacy lives on, she is still greatly missed.
This article originally appeared May 26, 2014 on Tor.com