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social sciences

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Ride, Sally (1951-2012)  
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Sally Ride made history as the first American woman in space when she flew as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1983. After retiring from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), she devoted herself to education, both as a university professor and the founder of Sally Ride Science, an enterprise that encourages girls to study mathematics, science, and engineering and to pursue careers in those fields.

Ride did not come out publicly during her lifetime. Her lesbianism did not become generally known until July 2012 when the announcement of her death acknowledged her longtime partner. The revelation prompted a wide-ranging discussion about the closet and the obligation of famous glbtq people to come out.

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The elder of the two daughters of Dale Ride, a professor of political science at Santa Monica College, and Joyce Ride, who was a volunteer counselor at a women's correctional institution, Sally Kristen Ride was born on May 26, 1951 in Encino, California, and grew up there. The family belonged to the Presbyterian church. Both Professor and Mrs. Ride served as elders, and Ride's sister, Karen, became an ordained minister.

Of their family life, Dale Ride told Jerry Adler of Newsweek, "We mostly just let [our daughters] grow up normally. We might have encouraged, but mostly we let them explore."

One of the things that Sally Ride would explore was tennis, at which she excelled at a young age, becoming a nationally ranked amateur while still in her teens. Her proficiency in the sport won her a scholarship to the private Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles.

Journalist Susan Okie, a schoolmate and fellow scholarship student who would become Ride's lifelong friend, said that the two of them "felt out of place among actors' daughters and 'Bel Air belles' at the school," but Ride would find a key to her future at Westlake. "I didn't have a lot of confidence in myself," she told Del Jones of USA Today. "That environment gave me the confidence and motivation to declare a physics major in college."

Essential to her commitment to science was the mentorship of Elizabeth Mommaerts, who had been a professor at UCLA before coming to teach physiology at Westlake. Ride described her as "logic personified," and she was impressed by her dedication to the scientific method.

Ride remained in contact with her former teacher, and she was greatly distressed when Mommaerts committed suicide in 1972. Mommaerts would always be a hero to Ride, who told more than one journalist that upon being selected as an astronaut, the person with whom she most wanted to share the news was Mommaerts.

The other person Ride cited, in an interview with Roger Brooks of Success magazine, as instrumental in her choice of a career in science was her father. "He valued education, and he was remarkable in that he believed whatever I was interested in, he should encourage," she stated. "He spoke with my teachers to make sure they knew I was interested in science"--setting an example of fostering science education for girls that Ride herself would eventually follow.

After graduating from Westlake in 1968, Ride enrolled at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where she studied for three semesters before returning to California, where she took physics courses at UCLA while continuing to develop her tennis skills with an eye to a potential career as an athlete.

Ride transferred to Stanford University in 1970. She joined the tennis team, quickly becoming its top singles player and achieving a high national amateur ranking. While teaching at a summer tennis camp, she attracted the notice of Billie Jean King, who encouraged her to give up her studies and become a professional tennis player.

Ride chose to remain in college, but her ultimate career was still unclear. She had delighted in discovering the works of Shakespeare, and so she double-majored in English and physics, graduating in 1973.

Ride considered pursuing her study of literature but opted instead for science. Accepted to the graduate program in physics at Stanford, she earned her master's degree in 1975 and a doctorate in astrophysics in 1978.

In 1977 Ride noticed an ad in the Stanford student newspaper announcing that NASA was seeking applications from scientists--including women--to become astronauts. "She knew instantly that this was what she wanted to do," wrote Okie in the Washington Post.

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