Who Was Sally Ride? First Queer American Woman To Go Into Space

On June 18, 1983, Ride made history by becoming the first American woman to venture into space aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Sally Ride's personal life, particularly her sexual orientation, remained private until her death. This is her story.

Ishika Thanvi
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Image: NASA

Sally Ride's legacy as a pioneering astronaut, talented physicist, and dedicated educator continues to inspire generations. On June 18, 1983, Ride made history by becoming the first American woman to venture into space aboard the space shuttle Challenger. This monumental achievement was followed by another shuttle flight, cementing her status as a trailblazer in the field of space exploration. After her career with NASA, Ride became an advocate for science education, leaving a lasting impact on countless young minds. Tragically, she passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2012.


A Personal Revelation: Sally Ride's Sexual Orientation

Sally Ride's personal life, particularly her sexual orientation, remained private until her death. In her obituary, Ride's long-time partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy, was acknowledged, marking Ride as the first known gay astronaut. Ride and O'Shaughnessy, who was the chief operating officer and executive vice president of Sally Ride Science, had been partners for 27 years. This revelation was made with the consent of Ride, who had meticulously planned the announcement before her passing.

Ride's sister, Bear Ride, explained that Sally's reserved nature and Norwegian heritage contributed to her decision to keep her personal life private. Sally preferred to focus on her work and accomplishments rather than her feelings or personal struggles. Bear Ride, in contrast, is an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, emphasizing that while she and her sister had different approaches to activism, Sally's integrity and commitment to her principles remained unwavering.

The Impact of Cultural and Professional Expectations

Historically, astronauts faced immense pressure to conform to specific societal norms, including those related to gender and sexuality. Diverging from these norms could jeopardize their careers. This context helps explain why Sally Ride, like many others, kept aspects of her personal life private. Despite this, her posthumous coming out represents a significant step towards greater acceptance and recognition of LGBTQ+ individuals in fields traditionally dominated by heteronormative ideals.

After leaving NASA, Ride continued to champion science education, particularly for young girls. She co-founded Sally Ride Science in 2001, focusing on inspiring students to pursue careers in science and technology. Her work included initiatives like EarthKAM, which allowed middle-school students to take pictures of Earth from space, and MoonKAM, enabling students to photograph the moon using NASA's GRAIL lunar probes. These programs reached hundreds of thousands of students globally, reflecting Ride's enduring commitment to education.


Early Life and Academic Achievements

Born on May 26, 1951, in Encino, California, Sally Kristen Ride grew up in a family that encouraged curiosity and exploration. Her parents, Joyce and Dale Ride, instilled in her and her sister the importance of education and open-mindedness. Sally excelled academically and athletically, attending Westlake High School for Girls on a tennis scholarship. She later pursued her passion for science at Stanford University, earning degrees in physics and English, followed by a master's and a doctorate in physics.

A Pioneering Space Career

Ride's career at NASA began in 1978 when she was selected as one of the first six female astronauts. She first served as a capsule communicator for shuttle missions before making history as a mission specialist on STS-7. During this mission, she operated the shuttle's robotic arm, becoming the first woman to do so. Her second flight, STS-41-G, further demonstrated her skills and contributions to space exploration. Ride was slated for a third mission, but the Challenger disaster in 1986 ended her spaceflight career.

Post-NASA Contributions and Advocacy

Beyond her space missions, Ride served on the investigation boards for both the Challenger and Columbia disasters and contributed to defining NASA's future goals. After leaving NASA, she worked at Stanford University and the University of California, San Diego, while continuing to promote science education through her company. She also authored several children's books to inspire young readers to explore science.


Recognition and Honors

Sally Ride's contributions have been recognised through numerous accolades. President Barack Obama posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The US Navy named a research ship in her honour, and the USPS issued a stamp featuring her image. Statues of Ride have been erected at significant locations, celebrating her pioneering spirit and lasting impact on space exploration and education.

A Legacy of Courage and Inspiration

Sally Ride's life and career were marked by her courage, dedication, and unwavering integrity. Her groundbreaking achievements in space and her efforts to inspire future generations through science education ensure that her legacy will continue to shine brightly. Ride's story is a testament to the power of pursuing one's passions and breaking barriers, both in the realms of space and societal norms.

NASA LGBTQ Sally Ride First American woman in space