When she felt the rockets beginning to rumble below her as the space shuttle Challenger prepared to blast off, Sally Kristen Ride was just moments away from becoming the first American woman in space.
But what was uppermost in her mind at that moment 27 years ago today was a feeling of utter helplessness.
“It was just so clear that there was nothing at all that I could do to change what was happening,” she told the AARP Bulletin. “And then once I kind of clawed through that fog it was just exhilarating.”
A quarter of a million people watched the launch at Cape Canaveral that day, many wearing “Ride, Sally Ride” T-shirts.
Returning to Edwards Air Force Base in California six days later, the then 32-year-old physicist told the crowd that greeted her: “I’m sure it’s the most fun I’ll ever have in my life.”
She’s never felt anything like it since. “There’s just nothing like it on the face of the earth,” she said. “Being weightless for a week was just a real treat and a real experience.”
Growing up near Los Angeles, Ride was equally interested in science and sports. As a teenager, she was a nationally ranked tennis player who was encouraged by Billie Jean King to turn pro.
Her parents were a bit perplexed by their daughter’s passion for science. Yet they valued education and encouraged her to pursue her dreams, Ride said. “They essentially decided that if science was what I liked that that was good enough for them.”
She did well in high school, but lacked confidence and worried her science studies would get harder. “I wasn’t sure I was smart enough to go on,” she said. But her teachers encouraged her to continue.
She went on to receive her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from Stanford University. A few months before she completed her doctorate in physics, she spotted an ad in the student newspaper that said NASA was looking for astronauts. Women were encouraged to apply.
“I literally applied that afternoon,” she said. Ultimately she was selected for astronaut training from a field of more than 8,000 applicants.
Ride flew in space twice aboard Challenger—in June 1983 and October 1984—and was preparing for a third mission aboard that shuttle when tragedy struck. She was on a commercial flight to her home in Houston on Jan. 28, 1986, when Challenger exploded shortly after launch, killing all seven crew members.
The airline pilot came on the intercom to tell the passengers what had happened. Ride immediately pulled out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could sit in the jump seat and listen to the radio transmissions from NASA. She rode there for the rest of the flight, devastated at what had just happened to people she knew very well. Four of the Challenger crew had been in Ride’s astronaut class, and she had become friendly with teacher Christa McAuliffe, who had trained at the Johnson Space Center for three months.