Pioneer Bravely Fought Cancer

The accomplished pioneer loses a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer.

BY Neal Broverman

July 23 2012 4:58 PM ET

Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, passed away at the age of 61, leaving behind her longtime female partner.

Ride, who suffered from pancreatic cancer, died peacefully Monday. Born in Los Angeles in 1951, Ride obtained degrees in physics and English before signing up to become a NASA astronaut in 1977; it was the first time NASA allowed women in space. Ride apparently wasn’t out then — it's unlikely an openly gay person would be allowed to become an astronaut at the time, as the government believed gays represented security risks thanks to potential blackmail situations. She was actually married to a fellow astronaut, Steven Hawley, during part of her time with NASA.

Ride was chosen to be an astronaut in 1978 and jetted out of Earth's orbit in 1983 as the first American woman to go into space. Ride was part of the Challenger mission and would attend another Challenger voyage in 1984. A third trip was halted after the deadly 1986 Challenger explosion killed several astronauts and teacher Christa McAuliffe. Ride retired from NASA in 1987, eventually becoming a college professor in California.

A hero to millions of girls and women, Ride leaves behind her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy, as well as her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear; her niece, Caitlin, and nephew, Whitney; her staff of 40 at Sally Ride Science; and many friends and colleagues around the country, according to Ride's website.

"Sally Ride and Tam O’Shaughnessy became friends at the age of 12 when they both played tennis," an article on Ride's website recalls. "While their lives took different paths, they stayed in contact over the years." Ride went onto Stanford and became the first American woman in space, while O’Shaughnessy became a professional tennis player, then earned degress in biology and psychology and became a science teacher. She worked with Ride on six books — Voyager, The Third Planet, The Mystery of Mars, Exploring Our Solar System, Mission Planet Earth, and Mission Save the Planet. She also helped lead Sally Ride Science, which Ride founded in 2001 to inspire children through science.

"The nation has lost one of its finest leaders, teachers, and explorers," NASA administrator Charles Bolden told USA Today.

Ride may have been the first LGBT person in space, but she isn't the only to contribute to the advancement of space exploration. Scientist James Pollack worked alongside Carl Sagan and was a top researcher on planetary science and the effect of nuclear war. The late Todd Hawley is one of the three founders of the International Space University and came out publicly in 1990 when faced with a whisper campaign seeking to undermine him.

See more images from Ride's life on the following pages.

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