Whether she was soaring into space or breaking down barriers on Earth, Sally Ride was a trailblazer.
And although she made history in 1983 as the first American woman in space, the serious but soft-spoken Ms. Ride believed her greatest accomplishment was inspiring young women to pursue careers in math and science.
That was the mission that defined her.
Ms. Ride, the NASA flight engineer who changed the face of the nation's space program in so many ways, died Monday at her home in La Jolla, Calif., after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 61.
A private person -- few people outside her family knew of her illness -- Ms. Ride was born in Los Angeles and earned four degrees from Stanford University, including a doctorate in physics in 1978. A nationally ranked tennis player as a youth, she also played on Stanford's varsity team.
Upon graduating, she was among 8,000 applicants for NASA's astronaut program. She and five other women were selected, along with 29 men. The 1978 astronaut class was the first to include women.
The class reported to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to begin training. Five years later, Ms. Ride was assigned to STS-7, a six-day mission involving the deployment of two communications satellites and a number of scientific experiments.
The spacecraft that she flew aboard was the perfect vehicle for her, capturing her pioneering spirit in a single word.
The shuttle Challenger.
Ms. Ride was not the first woman in space; the Soviet Union sent a woman into space two decades earlier. But that did not dim the spotlight or dampen the enthusiasm surrounding her accomplishment on June 18, 1983, when, at age 32, she and four male crew mates lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
"On launch day, there was so much excitement and so much happening around us in crew quarters, even on the way to the launch pad," she recalled in a NASA interview for the 25th anniversary of her flight in 2008. "I didn't really think about it that much at the time -- but I came to appreciate what an honor it was to be selected to be the first to get a chance to go into space."
Ms. Ride flew in space twice, both times on Challenger, in 1983 and in 1984, logging 343 hours in space. A third flight was canceled when Challenger exploded in 1986. She was on the commission investigating that accident and later served on the panel for the 2003 Columbia shuttle accident, the only person on both boards.
She also was on the president's committee of advisers on human spaceflight.
After leaving the space program, Ms. Ride became a professor of physics at the University of California in San Diego. She wrote five science books for children and became president and CEO of Sally Ride Science, a company she founded in 2001.
"My mission these days is to improve science education and particularly to encourage more girls and young women to go on in careers in science and math and technology or to at least explore the opportunities in those fields," she said during a September 2007 Pittsburgh visit to the Heinz Field East Club Lounge, where she spoke to 800 women at the Allegheny County Women's Leadership Council's sixth annual breakfast.
She made the point that in elementary school girls like science as much as boys do. But in later years, the number of girls interested in science drops sharply.
"The reasons are not reasons of interest or aptitude," she said. "The reasons are in our culture and subtle stereotypes that still exist. ... Even though we're trying to get rid of them, they're still there.
"It's easy to picture. You ask a kid to draw a scientist, they'll draw a geeky-looking guy that looks like Einstein, with a lab coat and a pocket protector, with no friends, who does work at 2 in the morning in a lab with no windows and no doors. No 12-year-old girl aspires to that."
She said teaching children science is vital in a world that is constantly making technological advancements. Science helps in daily life, and it also can be a career opportunity.
"The problem is not anywhere near as bad as it was 20 or 30 years ago," she said. "But if you look around the technology work force today, you'll find that still in this country only about 11 percent of engineers are female. That's way up from less than 1 percent in the 1970s. [That's] huge progress, but [we still have] a ways to go. And only about 20 percent of the scientific work force is female.
"The philosophy we have is that we don't have to convert kids, even girls, to science. Let's just give them opportunities to explore those interests and show them that there are lots of other girls, normal kids, who share those interests and that there are lots of women who go on to careers that they love in science and engineering."
After her first space shuttle flight, more than 42 other American women flew in space, NASA said, many of them citing Ms. Ride as an inspiration.
"Sally was a personal and professional role model to me and thousands of women around the world," said NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver. "Her spirit and determination will continue to be an inspiration for women everywhere."
"The nation has lost one of its finest leaders, teachers and explorers," NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement Monday.
President Barack Obama echoed that sentiment. "Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model," he said. "She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars."
Ms. Ride's office said she is survived by Tam O'Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years; her mother, Joyce; and her sister, Bear.obituaries - nation - science
Dan Majors: firstname.lastname@example.org and 412-263-1456. The Associated Press contributed. First Published July 24, 2012 4:00 AM