(CNS) - Sally Ride, who nurtured her interest in science by playing with a chemistry set and telescope as a child and went on to become the first American woman in space, died today in La Jolla at age 61 after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer.
Ride, who earned a tennis scholarship to Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles, soared into history on June 18, 1983, when she blasted off as a member of the crew aboard the space shuttle Challenger.
"Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism, and literally changed the face of America's space program," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "The nation has lost one of its finest leaders, teachers and explorers. Our thoughts and prayers are with Sally's family and the many she inspired. She will be missed, but her star will always shine brightly."
President Barack Obama called Ride "a national hero and a powerful role model.''
"She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars and later fought tirelessly to help them get there by advocating for a greater focus on science and math in our schools," Obama said. "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."
Ride was working on her doctoral degree in physics at Stanford University in 1977 when she responded to an advertisement from NASA, which was looking for applicants to its astronaut program.
She was among about 8,000 people who applied, and she was among 35 who were chosen. She worked a member of the ground crew for two missions of the space shuttle Columbia before being chosen as a member of the crew for the historic Challenger flight.
"The fact that I was going to be the first American woman to go into space carried huge expectations along with it," Ride said in a 2008 interview cited on NASA's website. "... On launch day, there was so much excitement and so much happening around us in crew quarters, even on the way to the launch pad. I didn't really think about it that much at the time ... but I came to appreciate what an honor it was to be selected to be the first to get a chance to go into space.''
Ride flew twice aboard the shuttle Challenger and was assigned to a third shuttle flight, but the program was placed on hold after Challenger exploded shortly after launch in January 1986. Ride served on the presidential commission that investigated the explosion.
She retired from NASA in 1987. Two years later, she joined the faculty at UC San Diego as a professor of physics and director of the California Space Institute. She founded Sally Ride Science in 2001 to encourage kids to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
Ride is survived by Tam O'Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years; her mother Joyce; sister Bear; niece Caitlin; and nephew Whitney.