Sally Ride: First American Woman in Space

On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride and four other astronauts waited for the liftoff of the Challenger space shuttle. Although the United States already sent male astronauts into space, Sally was the first American woman to go up in a space shuttle. For the next six days, Sally served as flight engineer. Her job was to help watch over two thousand dials and lights on the Challenger’s control panel during takeoff and landing. She also helped test a fifty-foot long robotic arm and performed science experiments. Though the successful flight lasted less than a week, it took Sally years before she could even think of visiting space.

In the 1960s, when Sally was a teenager, the United States and the now former Soviet Union competed with each other to send people into space. Sally read the newspapers and eagerly watched the accomplishments of male astronauts. She didn’t know yet that she wanted to join them. Instead, Sally worked toward her college and graduate degrees in physics. One day she browsed through the college newspaper to look for a job after graduation. She saw an ad urging young scientists to apply to NASA for positions as mission specialists. The new astronauts would conduct experiments in space. Sally later wrote, “Suddenly I knew that I wanted a chance to see the Earth and stars from outer space.” She applied for the job the same day.

As a young girl growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of Encino, California, Sally stood out from the other girls. Her younger sister Karen said, “When the kids played baseball or football out in the streets, Sally was always the best…She was the only girl who was acceptable to the boys.” When Sally’s mother started playing tennis for fun, Sally also got a tennis racket. She spent so much time practicing the game that she won a scholarship to Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles. While in high school, Sally took a physiology class. She learned how living things worked. Once she finished the class, Sally discovered that she liked science just as much as tennis.

Just answering the ad didn’t make Sally an astronaut overnight, however. Out of the eight thousand people who applied, Sally was among the finalists who went to the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center for testing. Mental and physical challenges as well as scientific knowledge were all part of becoming an astronaut. In January 1978, Sally learned that she was officially an astronaut. Before she could go on any missions, however, she needed to complete more training. Sally and her thirty-four classmates took courses, practiced parachute jumping, and learned how to fly a jet. Sally also spent time in a simulator that resembled the shuttle. Sally said of the simulator: “They turn you on your back and shake you and vibrate you and pump noise in, so that it’s very realistic.” Simulator training lasted twelve to fifteen hours a week, and Sally loved the feeling of riding in a real rocket.

In April 1982, the commander of the seventh shuttle mission Captain Robert Crippen chose Sally Ride to be part of his crew. Since the mission would make Sally the first American woman in space, she received a lot of media attention. Though she was excited and proud to take part in the mission, Sally didn’t think the media should make a big deal of the fact that she was a woman. She told one reporter, “I did not come to NASA to make history. It’s important to me that people don’t think I was picked for the flight because I am a woman and it’s time for NASA to send one.” Mostly Sally ignored the reporters and concentrated on the job ahead of her. By the summer of 1983, Sally was prepared to join her fellow astronauts in space.

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