Sally Ride, the first US woman in space, dies aged 61

Physicist Sally Ride's reach for the stars began in 1977 when she replied to a Nasa astronauts' job ad

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Sally Ride, the first US woman to travel into space, has died aged 61, 17 months after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, her foundation says.

"Sally's historic flight into space captured the nation's imagination and made her a household name," Sally Ride Science said in a statement.

She blasted off in the US space shuttle Challenger in June 1983.

Ride was not the first woman in space - that was Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova in June 1963.

Since her first mission in 1983, more than 45 women from the US and other countries have flown in space, including two as shuttle commander.

Ride died on Monday in La Jolla, California.

Once an aspiring tennis player, she went on to earn no fewer than four university degrees including a doctorate in physics.

National hero

In a statement, US President Barack Obama said he was "deeply saddened" to hear about her death.

Start Quote

Her star will always shine brightly”

End Quote Charles Bolden Nasa administrator

"As the first American woman to travel into space, Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model," he said in a statement.

Ride was born and grew up in Los Angeles, California, attending Stanford University for master's and doctorate degrees in physics.

According to her foundation, Ride applied to Nasa after seeing an ad in the Stanford student newspaper, calling for scientists and engineers, including women to apply to the astronaut corps.

She joined Nasa in 1978 - one of 35 people selected as astronauts from a field of more than 8,000 who applied.

Ride went on her first space shuttle mission on board Challenger in 1983.

As well as being the first American woman in space, she was also - at the age of 32 - the youngest person in America at the time to go into orbit.

Great expectations

As part of that mission she used a robotic arm - which she had helped develop - to retrieve a satellite.

File photo of Nasa astronaut Sally Ride Ride also found time to write five children's science books

She reached orbit again the following year, and was scheduled for a third trip when the Challenger space shuttle broke apart during lift-off in 1986.

The disaster occurred just over a minute into the mission, killing all seven crew members, and prompting an almost three-year hiatus in the American space programme.

Following the disaster, she served as a member of the presidential commission that investigated the causes of the fatal accident. She also sat on a similar board following the Columbia space shuttle, which broke apart during its re-entry to Earth in 2003.

"Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism - and literally changed the face of America's space program," Nasa administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. "She will be missed, but her star will always shine brightly."

Ms Ride's former husband Steve Hawley said in a statement: "Sally was a very private person who found herself a very public persona. It was a role in which she was never fully comfortable."

The former astronaut, who was married to Ride from 1982 until 1987, added: "I was privileged to be a part of her life and be in a position to support her as she became the first American woman to fly in space."

After leaving Nasa, Ride became a professor at University of California, San Diego, and served as a science fellow at Stanford University.

She launched Sally Ride Science, which created science programmes and publications for young students, in 2001. She also wrote five children's science books.

"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.

"I didn't really think about it that much at the time - but I came to appreciate what an honour it was to be selected," she said.

Ride is survived by her mother Carol and her partner of 27 years Tam O'Shaughnessy.

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