Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and a longtime advocate for STEM education, died yesterday of pancreatic cancer at age 61. Dr. Ride went into space twice in her career, both times aboard the space shuttle Challenger, where she became not only the first American woman but also the youngest American in space. She had a PhD in astrophysics from Stanford and held a leadership post at NASA.
Dr. Ride shattered one of the highest glass ceilings as a result of the Challenger mission in 1983. The day after the space shuttle launched, Gloria Steinem, then editor of Ms. magazine, said, “Millions of little girls are going to sit by their television sets and see they can be astronauts, heroes, explorers, and scientists.”
Steinem was right. Since then, Dr. Ride has been a role model for young women, and her passion for education is evident in her work in STEM education. Dr. Ride said about STEM education, “The reasons [girls’ interest in science drops after elementary school] are not reasons of interests or aptitude. The reasons are in our culture and subtle stereotypes that still exist…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 two in the morning in a lab with no windows and doors. No 12-year-old girl aspires to that.”
In 2001, Dr. Ride founded Sally Ride Science, an education company dedicated to supporting students’ interests in science, math, and technology while also providing STEM educational programs, materials, and teacher training. The company states, “a key part of our corporate mission is to make a difference in girls’ lives, and in society’s perceptions of their roles in technical fields.” Dr. Ride intended for Sally Ride Science to “make science and engineering cool again.”
Dr. Ride said in 1985, “It’s very important for girls in high school to be able to look out into the real world and see women scientists. Girls and young women aren’t going into science in the numbers women scientists think they should.”
Her message is as relevant in education today as it was twenty-seven years ago. President Obama released a statement on the passing of Dr. Ride, which feels particularly relevant after the White House’s recent announcement for a STEM Master Teacher Corps: “As the first American woman to travel into space, Sally was a national hero and powerful role model. 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.”
Tom Luce, chairman of the National Math and Science Initiative, of which Dr. Ride was a founding member, issued the following statement: “Sally Ride was an inspiration to all who knew her. She was passionate about the next generation having the math and science skills to create new frontiers as she did.”
Visit NASA’s page of condolences to learn more about her incredible achievements throughout her lifetime. The comments section at the bottom is not to be missed; the kind words from fans all over the world are a beautiful tribute to Dr. Ride’s legacy.