The first American woman in space--she was preceded by two Soviet women, Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982--Dr. Ride died of cancer on 23 July at the age of 61.
Despite her formidable achievements, Johnny Carson, then perhaps the most popular man on television, reportedly joked on the Tonight show about delaying the June, 1983, takeoff of the Challenger space shuttle so that Ride could find matching shoes and handbag. (Perhaps there was some pop-culture justice when Billy Joel included her as one of 56 historic figures in the 40-year period leading up to the 1989 release of his 1989 song, "We Didn't Start the Fire." She probably was not the subject of Lou Reed's song "Ride Sally Ride," since it was released in 1974, before she was nationally known, but many people watching her first shuttle launch reportedly wore T-shirts with that slogan.)
After her two space shuttle rides, which she described as high points of her life, she rendered the nation valuable service as a member of the two commissions that investigated the fatal explosions of the Challenger and Columbia shuttle missions (the first of which took the life of another female scientist-astronaut, Ph.D. electrical engineer Judith Resnik, and the lives of other astronauts). As the only person to serve on both commissions, and armed with experience as an astronaut and scientific and engineering expertise, Ride emerged as a strong critic of a NASA culture that permitted officials to overlook the technical deficiencies that caused the disasters. (Physicist Richard Feyman's celebrated televised demonstration of what happened to O-rings in ice water mesmerized the nation.) She also gave public support--apparently she was the only national figure to do so--to Roger Boisjoly, a NASA engineer who attempted to warn the agency about problems with the O-rings but was ostracized and ignored.
Dr. Ride was also a professor of physics at the University of California-San Diego, founder of the science education firm Sally Ride Science, co-author of several books, winner of numerous professional awards, and the namesake of at least two public schools. A symbol of women's advancement for much of her life, at her death she attained that status for another group as well: gays and lesbians. Dr. Ride was married to Steven Hawley, a fellow astronaut, for 5 years during the 1980s. The announcement of her death issued by her company listed her survivors as including "Tam O'Shaugnessy, her partner for 27 years"--and, incidentally, her co-author on several books intended to educate young people, and especially girls, about science.