Ms. Ride made history on June 18, 1983, when she orbited the Earth aboard the space shuttle Challenger. At 32 years and 23 days old, she was the youngest American to go into space.
In a statement, President Obama said that Ms. Ride “inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars.”
He continued, “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.”
Yet the legacy Ms. Ride had earned as a space pioneer was one that she was reluctant to embrace. She rarely gave interviews, enjoyed not being recognized in public, and — unlike some of the daredevil pilots in the first class of astronauts — avoided attracting attention to herself and her achievements.
She maintained from the beginning that she had not intended “to become a historic figure or a symbol of progress for women.” At her request, NASA denied all requests for licenses to sell posters, T-shirts and other merchandise bearing her name and likeness.
For Ms. Ride, a theoretical astrophysicist, the real accomplishment of her debut journey into space was an experiment in which a 50-foot robotic arm was maneuvered to grasp a three-ton satellite hurtling above Earth.
At a NASA news conference, she told reporters: “It’s too bad this is such a big deal. It’s too bad our society isn’t further along.”
She was aware that two Russian female cosmonauts had preceded her into space, Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982.
Ms. Ride would fly to space only one more time, in a 197-hour mission again aboard the Challenger. It included observations of the Earth using satellites and high-tech cameras.
She had been scheduled to make a third trip, but it was canceled after the Challenger exploded Jan. 28, 1986, killing six NASA astronauts and teacher Christa McAuliffe. After serving on a presidential commission investigating the disaster, Ms. Ride resigned from NASA and turned to academia, as a physics professor at the University of California at San Diego. In 1986, she and former Washington Post staff writer Susan Okie published, “To Space and Back,” a book describing Ms. Ride’s astronaut career.
In the decades afterward, she shunned opportunities that would have put her in the spotlight. She had once called spaceflight “the most fun that I’ll ever have in my life” and said that leaving the program was hard.
It could be said that in one way or another, all of her early life had been preparation to become an astronaut. Sally Kristen Ride was born May 26, 1951, in Los Angeles. Her father was a political science professor at Santa Monica College, and her mother helped found the Mary Magdalene Project, which helps prostitutes escape the streets. As a teenager, Ms. Ride had excelled as an athlete, especially in tennis, where she learned to think quickly. She was encouraged by mentor and playing partner Billie Jean King to consider turning professional.