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Sally Ride’s Legacy: The Little-Known Facts

When Space Shuttle Challenger launched on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride earned the title as the first American woman in space.

To ask her, the real achievement of that mission was using the Shuttle’s new robotic arm to test whether it could grab a satellite out of space and bring it into the cargo bay.

That robotic arm, of course, was the Canadarm, which would later be used to rescue and repair several satellites, including the Hubble Space Telescope.

Astrophysicist Turned Astronaut

For Ride, who died on July 23 at the age of 61, space was solely about science and education. She was, after all, a theoretical astrophysicist; becoming an astronaut was a job she applied for after seeing it advertised in her college newspaper.

Part of Ms. Ride’s job at NASA was as a member of the joint Canadian-U.S. team that designed and developed the Canadarm. It was her expertise with the tool that led STS-7 commander Bob Crippen to choose her to conduct the crucial test of the Canadarm. The test? Could the Canadarm be used to catch, repair, and re-launch broken satellites. Understanding its importance, Ride practiced using the Canadarm for hours, according to the book, ‘Sally Ride: Shooting for the Stars’.

As Carolyn Huntoon, former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, is quoted as saying, “It was designed for pilots, but she was better than the pilots were doing very early on”.

The experiment proved to be a success, and the Canadarm was used to repair and deploy key satellites for almost three decades. This includes the launch of the Hubble telescope, which NASA has called “one of the most prolific astronomical endeavours in history.”

That’s got to make an astrophysicist proud.

While Ride would make only two trips into space — her third mission was canceled after the Challenger explosion in 1986 — she would became a renowned figure at NASA.

Other Little-Known Facts:

  1. Ride was the only person to have served on both panels for the investigation into the Challenger and Columbia shuttle tragedies.
  2. She wrote an influential report on NASA’s future in space, which called for, among other things, the necessity for Mars exploration.
  3. She was the first director of NASA’s Office of Exploration.
  4. After retiring from NASA in 1987, she became a physics professor at the University of California San Diego, and served as director of the California Space Institute.
  5. In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science, with the aim of inspiring children — particularly young girls — to pursue interests in science, technology, engineering, and math.

If you have a chance to scan through the tributes left on the Sally Ride Science Facebook and Twitter accounts, you’ll notice that the words ‘hero’ and ‘pioneer’ come up a lot. In the wake of Sally Ride’s death, many women, it seems, felt compelled to express their thanks to the woman who inspired them to embark on careers in science and engineering.

Ms. Ride’s influence may have spread further than she knew. Now that’s a legacy.

AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries as well as the military. AJ blogs via Contently.com

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