By the CNN Wire Staff
Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, died Monday after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer, her company said. She was 61.
“Sally lived her life to the fullest, with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, commitment and love. Her integrity was absolute; her spirit was immeasurable; her approach to life was fearless,” read a statement on the website of Sally Ride Science, a company she started to help teach students — particularly young women and girls — about science, math and technology.
Ride flew into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983 to become America’s first woman in space. She took a second trip aboard the same shuttle one year later.
The first woman in space was Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, who orbited the Earth 48 times in 1963.
“As the first American woman to travel into space, Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model,” President Barack Obama said soon after news of her death broke. “She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars and later fought tirelessly to help them get there by advocating for a greater focus on science and math in our schools. Sally’s life showed us that there are no limits to what we can achieve, and I have no doubt that her legacy will endure for years to come.”
A Los Angeles native, Ride attended Stanford University, where she earned four degrees, including a doctorate in physics, according to NASA. She joined the agency as part of the class of 1978, the first to include women. Ride responded to an ad in the Stanford student newspaper and was selected from some 8,000 applicants.
She was assigned to a third flight, but that was scratched after the Challenger exploded shortly after lift-off in 1986, claiming the lives of seven crew members on board. Ride helped investigate that accident and later that of Space Shuttle Columbia, becoming the only person to serve on the commissions investigating both accidents. In 2003, the Columbia disintegrated during re-entry into the atmosphere, killing all seven crew members.
She served as a special assistant to the NASA administrator for long-range and strategic planning and was the first director of NASA’s Office of Exploration, according to her company.
After leaving the agency, Ride joined the faculty at the University of California, San Diego, where she was a professor of physics and director of the California Space Institute. She was also the author of several books.
During a 2008 interview with CNN, Ride recalled what it felt like to look back on Earth, saying the view gave her a new perspective.
“You can’t get it just standing on the ground, with your feet firmly planted on Earth. You can only get it from space, and it’s just remarkable how beautiful our planet is and how fragile it looks,” she said.
Ride is survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy, her mother, her sister and other family members.
“Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism — and literally changed the face of America’s space program,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “The nation has lost one of its finest leaders, teachers and explorers. Our thoughts and prayers are with Sally’s family and the many she inspired. She will be missed, but her star will always shine brightly.”