The Space Trip That Made Sally Ride A Folk Hero

The first American woman to go into space died Monday. Sally Ride was 61 and had been battling pancreatic cancer. Her historic trip in 1983 aboard the space shuttle Challenger made her an instant folk hero.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're remembering this morning the first American woman to go into space: Sally Ride. She died yesterday in San Diego. Ride made her historic trip into space in 1983 aboard the space shuttle Challenger, a trip that made her an instant folk hero. NPR's Joe Palca has our report.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Sally Ride was born on May 26th, 1951. She grew up in the San Fernando Valley, just outside Los Angeles, where she went to Westlake High School.

SUSAN OKIE: She prided herself on being an underachiever.

PALCA: Medical writer and physician Susan Okie was Ride's classmate at Westlake. She says Ride's grades might not have been straight As, but that was misleading.

OKIE: She was brilliant. She was really good at math and science. She was also good at English. She always was a terrific writer.

PALCA: Okie says she and Ride went east for college, but that Ride missed the West Coast. She returned to California, eventually earning two bachelors degrees from Stanford University, one in physics and one in English. She stayed at Stanford for graduate school. Okie says one day, Ride saw a flyer on a bulletin board saying that NASA was, for the first time, recruiting women to be astronauts.

OKIE: She said that when she saw this, something just clicked, and she knew this is what she wanted to do. She just knew it in her gut, and went for it.

PALCA: Ride joined the astronaut corps in 1978.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: Sally in orbit was very much like Sally on the ground.

PALCA: That's Kathryn Sullivan. She was also in the first group of female astronauts.

Very, very bright, right on the money, always sharp and focused, very competitive, and a great sense of humor.

Sullivan is now a senior official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She and Ride flew together in 1984 when Sullivan became the first American woman to walk in space. The Challenger accident in 1986 was a devastating blow for many people in the space program. In an interview with NPR after the accident, Ride explained why morale remained high at the space agency.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

SALLY RIDE: The reason that people come to work at NASA is because they really, truly, honestly believe in the space program. They just want to be part of the space program. They're excited by it, and they want to participate.

PALCA: Ride ultimately left NASA in 1989. About 10 years ago, she began working on a project with Maria Zuber. Zuber is a professor of geophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

MARIA ZUBER: When Sally left the astronaut program, she decided that she would devote her career to education.

PALCA: Zuber says Ride was always looking for ways to excite middle school boys and girls about the wonders of science. Zuber is now the chief scientist on two probes in orbit around the moon, mapping the moon's gravitational field. She says Ride saw this as an opportunity.

ZUBER: Sally had the idea that we should put cameras on these two spacecraft that would not have a scientific purpose, but that would be fully dedicated to education.

PALCA: Zuber says students have now taken 80,000 pictures with these cameras using software provided by Sally Ride Science, a company devoted to encouraging boys' and girls' interest in math, science and technology. Zuber says Ride may have initially chafed at some of the publicity that was forced on her by her iconic role in the space program, but she ultimately accepted it.

ZUBER: You know, Sally realized that being the first American woman in space, that it was a huge honor, and that it was a great responsibility, and that she was going to use her position well.

PALCA: Sally Ride died from pancreatic cancer. She is survived by her mother, Joyce, her sister Bear, her niece Caitlin, a nephew Whitney, and her partner for the past 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy.

Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

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