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1983

Sally Ride becomes the first American woman in space

On this day in 1983,  the space shuttle Challenger is launched into space on its second mission. On board the shuttle is Dr. Sally K. Ride, who as a mission specialist, becomes the first American woman to travel into space. 

Ride, who had earlier pursued a professional tennis career, answered a newspaper ad in 1977 from NASA calling for young tech-savvy scientists who could work as mission specialists. 

The United States had screened a group of female pilots in 1959 and 1960 for possible astronaut training but later decided to restrict astronaut qualification to men. In 1978, NASA changed its policy and announced that it had approved six women out of some 3,000 original applicants to become the first female astronauts in the U.S. space program. 

Ride was a Stanford University alum (she received a Bachelor of Science degree in physics, a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, as well as a Master of Science and doctorate in physics). She became an on-the-ground capsule communicator (CAPCOM) for NASA’s STS-2 and STS-3 missions in 1981 and 1982, becoming an expert in controlling the shuttle’s robotic arm.

NASA announced Ride would be part of the STS-7 crew on April 30, 1982, serving as mission specialist and joining Commander Robert L. Crippen, mission specialist John M. Fabian, physician-astronaut Norman E. Thagard and pilot Frederick H. Hauck on the historic flight.

Over six days, the crew’s complex tasks included launching commercial communications satellites for Indonesia and Canada and deploying and retrieving a satellite using the shuttle’s robotic arm. Ride, who was 32 at the time, was the first woman to operate the shuttle’s mechanical arm. 

The mission also included experiments such as the study of the effects of zero gravity on the social behavior of an ant colony, research surrounding metal alloys in microgravity and space sickness investigations.

“I was one of a couple of astronauts that became heavily involved in the simulator work to verify that the simulators accurately modeled the arm: to develop procedures for using the arm in orbit, to develop the malfunction procedures so astronauts would know what to do if something went wrong,” Ride told the NASA Johnson Space Center’s Oral History Project in 2002. “There weren’t any checklists when we started; we developed them all.”

The mission, NASA’s seventh, ended June 24, 1983, when the Challenger returned to Earth, and, coincidentally, took place on roughly the 20th anniversary of the history-making launch of Soviet cosmonaut Valentina V. Tereshkova’s flight as the first woman in space on June 16, 1963.

Ride again made history when she became the first American woman to fly to space a second time on October 5, 1984, on shuttle mission STS-41G, where she was part of a seven-member crew that spent eight days in space. 

As with her first space flight, Ride used the shuttle’s robotic arm, this time to remove ice from the exterior of the ship and to readjust equipment. Another woman, mission specialist Kathryn D. Sullivan, was also part of that crew, making it the first NASA space flight with two women aboard (Sullivan became the first American woman to walk in space during that mission).

A third mission for Ride was cancelled following the explosion of the Challenger on January 28, 1986, in which all seven crew members, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, were killed. Ride was assigned to the Rogers Commission, a presidential commission charged with investigating the disaster. She later served as special assistant to the NASA administrator before leaving the agency in 1987 and returning to academia. 

Ride died of pancreatic cancer in 2012 at age 61.

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