Mustang Sally

On 26 May 1951, in the Encino neighborhood of Los Angeles, a political science professor and a counselor welcomed a daughter to their family. Dale and Carol likely had high hopes for their child, but they probably had no idea they had just birthed the most fittingly-named astronautic superstar in history: Sally Ride.

Despite the fact that Sally Ride would later become the first American woman in space, her first love was more terrestrial. At age 10, she received tennis instruction from Alice Marble, a winner of 18 Grand Slam titles and the top-ranked player in the world in 1939. Ride was good enough to earn a high school scholarship to the prestigious Westlake School for Girls and then a full ride (I’m here all week, ladies and gentlemen) to Swarthmore College. There, she became the Eastern Intercollegiate Women’s Singles champion in 1968 and 1969.

Homesick, Ride left Swarthmore to attempt to be a professional tennis player. She enrolled at UCLA, where she became a woman after our own hearts, simultaneously taking courses on Shakespeare and Quantum Mechanics. She then transferred to Stanford, the university from which she earned a Bachelor’s degree in physics and English literature. A Master of Science degree followed in 1975, before she became Dr. Sally Ride, as she earned a Ph.D. in physics. Her dissertation focused on the “interaction of X-rays with the interstellar medium.”

Though she befriended tennis legend Billie Jean King, even watching her famous Battle of the Sexes match in 1973, Ride decided to end the pursuit of professional tennis. Instead, she turned her gaze toward astrophysics, a decision that literally took her to the cosmos.

Sally Ride (right) and her younger sister with Alice Marble
Ride as a junior tennis player - photo from Sally Ride Science

In January 1977, Ride read an article about NASA’s attempt to recruit women for its new crop of astronauts for the burgeoning Space Shuttle program. Prior to this point, no woman had been a NASA astronaut; only one woman had even ventured to space, Valentina Tereshkova for the Soviets in 1963. Sally Ride became one of 8,079 to apply for a spot on the shuttles. NASA narrowed the field to 208. Of the 20 humans who made the cut for mission specialist positions, Ride was the only woman. When she finally got the call from NASA’s director of flight operations, Ride was one of six women, in a group of 35 overall, to join NASA Astronaut Group 8 as candidates.

The astronaut candidates received training in T-38 Talon aircraft, which ignited a passion for flying in Ride. She took private lessons in order to obtain a pilot’s license and frequently spent weekends in the air. She became so proficient at helming the Talon that she operated it with blacked-out windows, relying only on instruments to guide the way.

On August 31, 1979, Ride officially became an astronaut.

Ride training in a T-38 Talon - photo from NASA

For the second and third Space Shuttle launches (STS-2 and STS-3), Sally Ride served as a ground-based capsule communicator. During the early years of the program, she played a key role in developing the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System, the robot arms used to manipulate payloads and other materials outside the craft.

NASA selected Ride to become the first American woman and the youngest American overall in space when they tapped her for STS-7. Aboard Challenger, she zoomed into history, but not before she faced a bevy of trashy questions typical of the era. In a pre-launch press conference, the media asked her, “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” Another question was “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?” The media weren’t the only clueless dolts. People inside NASA suggested supplying Ride with 100 tampons for a six-day mission.

Challenger escaped Earth on 18 June 1983. The crew successfully deployed two satellites, carried out a slew of experiments with the robot arms, and snapped the first photograph of a shuttle from orbit. Ride returned to Earth a celebrity.

Communicating with Earth during STS-7 - NASA
Enjoying zero gravity on Challenger - NASA

Ride returned to space aboard Challenger on 5 October 1984, becoming the first American woman to escape Earth orbit twice. This time, she was joined by fellow Woman Crush Wednesday honoree, Kathryn Sullivan, who became the first American woman to spacewalk.

STS-41-G was another triumph, as Ride and crew deployed more satellites and produced more scientific experiments, including using some sophisticated imaging systems on Earth. Ride displayed her dexterity and cunning, as she employed the robot arms to fix a malfunctioning antenna.

During the mission, she donned a white silk scarf worn by another Woman Crush Wednesday icon, Amelia Earhart

Ride's second ride into space - NASA

Unfortunately, Ride’s third trip to space was canceled when Challenger exploded on takeoff on 28 January 1986. She served on the Rogers Commission, the panel tasked with investigating the disaster.

Following the investigation, Ride joined the NASA administration as a strategic planner for its long-term future. In 1987, she left NASA to become a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego, and the director of the California Space Institute. She briefly served as president of, wrote a children’s book, called To Space and Back, and continued to perform outreach for NASA. She turned down President Bill Clinton’s call to become NASA administrator, not wanting to leave California.

Sadly, Ride joined a second Space Shuttle disaster investigation team, after Columbia disintegrated upon reentry in 2003.

We lost Sally Ride far too early. She died on 23 July 2012 of pancreatic cancer.

Her historic achievements included a plethora of awards. She garnered the National Space Society’s von Braun Award, the Lindbergh Eagle, the Theodore Roosevelt Award from the NCAA, and twice the NASA Space Flight Medal. Ride is enshrined in the Astronaut Hall of Fame, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and the National Aviation Hall of Fame. Last and certainly least, she joins TMAC’s Woman Crush Wednesday Hall of Fame.

During her heyday, fans fondly sported regalia with a snippet from Wilson Picket’s tune “Mustang Sally.” In it, the line “Ride, Sally, Ride” spurred America’s first space-woman into the cosmos. It’s a call that continues to inspire future generations into space, particularly young women. 

Further Reading and Exploration

Sally Ride Science – University of California, San Diego

Who Was Sally Ride? – NASA

Sally Ride: First American Woman in Space – Space

Sally Ride – National Women’s History Museum

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