NEW YORK — Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, died Monday at her home in San Diego. She was 61.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, according to an announcement by her company, Sally Ride Science. Ms. Ride, a physicist, flew on the shuttle Challenger on June 18, 1983, and on a second mission in 1984. She was also, at 32, the youngest American in space. Ms. Ride later became the only person to sit on both panels investigating the catastrophic shuttle accidents that killed all astronauts on board: the Challenger explosion in 1986 and the Columbia crash in 2003.
Ms. Ride was finishing studies at Stanford — degrees in physics and astrophysics (as well as English) — and looking for a job when she saw a newspaper advertisement that said NASA was accepting astronaut applications. She looked at the qualifications and said, ‘‘I’m one of those people,’’ she told The New York Times in 1982.
She applied, and made the cut. ‘‘The women’s movement had already paved the way, I think, for my coming,’’ she said.
By the time she began studying laser physics at Stanford, women had already broken through into the physics department, once a boys’ club. And when she applied to the space program, NASA had already made a commitment to admit women.
But there were still rough spots. Speaking to reporters before the first shuttle flight, Ms. Ride — chosen in part because she was known for keeping her cool under stress — politely endured a barrage of questions focused on her sex: Would spaceflight affect her reproductive organs? Did she plan to have children? Would she wear a bra or makeup in space? Did she cry on the job? How would she deal with menstruation in space?
CBS News reporter Diane Sawyer asked her to demonstrate a newly installed privacy curtain around the shuttle’s toilet. On ‘‘The Tonight Show,’’ Johnny Carson joked that the shuttle flight would be delayed because Ms. Ride had to find a purse to match her shoes.
‘She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars and later fought tirelessly to help them get there.’
At a NASA news conference, Ms. Ride said: ‘‘It’s too bad this is such a big deal. It’s too bad our society isn’t further along.’’
The Soviets had already sent two women into space. One was welcomed aboard a space station by a male cosmonaut who told her the kitchen and an apron were ready for her.
In her early days at NASA, Ms. Ride trained in parachute jumping, water survival, and acclimatization to weightlessness and the huge G-forces of a rocket launch. She learned to fly a jet plane. She also switched from physics to engineering and helped to develop a robotic arm for the space shuttle. The Challenger commander, Robert Crippen, chose her for the 1983 mission in part because of her expertise with the device. She was part of a crew of five that spent about six days in space, during which she used the arm to deploy and retrieve a satellite.
At Cape Canaveral, many in the crowd of 250,000 that watched the launch wore T-shirts that said, ‘‘Ride, Sally Ride’’ — from the lyrics of the song ‘‘Mustang Sally.’’
The next day, Gloria Steinem, then editor of the magazine Ms., said, ‘‘Millions of little girls are going to sit by their television sets and see they can be astronauts, heroes, explorers, and scientists.’’
When the shuttle landed, Ms. Ride told reporters, ‘‘I’m sure it was the most fun that I’ll ever have in my life.’’
Her next mission, in 1984, lasted about eight days. She was on the roster for another shuttle flight, but then, on Jan. 28, 1986, the Challenger blew up, 73 seconds after taking off.
As part of the accident-investigation panel appointed by President Ronald Reagan, she asked tough questions. The group learned from testimony and other evidence that there had been signs of trouble on earlier Challenger flights, but that they had been dismissed as not critical. Ms. Ride told a colleague it was difficult not to be angered by the findings.
One witness was Roger Boisjoly, an engineer who had worked for the company that made the shuttle’s rocket boosters and who had been shunned by colleagues for revealing that he had warned his bosses and NASA of potentially fatal flaws in the boosters’ seals. Afterward, Ms. Ride, widely considered to be reserved and reticent, hugged him. She was the only panelist to offer him support, and Boisjoly, who died in February, said her gesture had helped sustain him during a troubled time.
In 2003, after sitting on a shuttle-disaster panel for the second time, Ms. Ride said in an interview with The Times that part of the problem at NASA was that people had forgotten some of the lessons learned from the Challenger accident. But she also said: ‘‘I flew the shuttle twice. It got me home twice. I like the shuttle.’’
In 1987, Ms. Ride led a study team that wrote a report advising NASA on the future direction of the space program. The team recommended an outpost on the moon, though not a ‘‘race to Mars.’’ But Mars should still be the ‘‘ultimate objective,’’ the group said. In the report, Ms. Ride wrote that a lunar outpost would combine ‘‘adventure, science, technology, and perhaps the seeds of enterprise.’’
She also noted darkly that the United States had ‘‘lost leadership’’ to the Soviet Union in a number of aspects of space exploration.
The same year, Ms. Ride retired from NASA and became a science fellow at the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University. In 1989, she became a professor of physics and director of the California Space Institute at the University of California San Diego.
She also developed a passion for trying to interest young people, especially girls, in science, math, and technology. She wrote six science books for children, including one that explained how to make a sandwich in space. (She advised eating it fast, before it floated away.) In 2001 she started a company, Sally Ride Science, to ‘‘make science and engineering cool again,’’ as she put it, by providing science-oriented school programs, materials, and teacher training.
Ms. Ride was known for guarding her privacy. She rejected most offers for product endorsements, memoirs, and movies, and her reticence lasted to the end. At her request, NASA kept her illness secret.
In 1983 Susan Okie, a longtime friend and a journalist, wrote an article in The Washington Post in which she described Ms. Ride as elusive and enigmatic, protective of her emotions. ‘‘During college and graduate school,’’ Okie wrote, ‘‘I had to interrogate her to find out what was happening in her personal life.’’
Okie quoted Ms. Ride’s younger sister, the Rev. Karen Scott, a Presbyterian minister, as saying, ‘‘ ‘Closeness’ is not a word that is often used to describe relationships in our family.’’ Ms. Ride always needed to be in control, her mother told Okie.
In a statement, President Obama said Ms. Ride was ‘‘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,’’ he said. ‘‘Sally’s life showed us that there are no limits to what we can achieve.’’
In 2003, Ms. Ride told The Times that stereotypes still persisted about girls and science and math — for example the idea that girls had less ability or interest in those subjects, or would be unpopular if they excelled in them. She thought peer pressure, especially in middle school, began driving girls away from the sciences, so she continued to set up science programs all over the country meant to appeal to girls — science festivals, science camps, science clubs — to help them find mentors, role models, and one another.
‘‘It’s no secret that I’ve been reluctant to use my name for things,’’ she said. ‘‘I haven’t written my memoirs or let the television movie be made about my life. But this is something I’m very willing to put my name behind.’’
Ms. Ride married a fellow astronaut, Steven Hawley, in 1982. They decorated their bedroom with a large photograph of astronauts on the moon. They divorced in 1987.
Ms. Ride leaves her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy; her mother, Joyce; and her sister, Scott, who is known as Bear. (O’Shaughnessy is chief operating officer of Ms. Ride’s company.)