Image: Sally Ride
Nasa  /  Reuters
Astronaut Sally Ride monitors control panels from the pilot's chair on the flight deck of the space shuttle Challenger during her historic space mission in 1983. Floating in front of her is a flight procedures notebook. Ride died on Monday after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
NBC News
updated 7/23/2012 7:13:44 PM ET 2012-07-23T23:13:44

The first American woman to go into space, Sally Ride, died Monday after a 17-month battle against pancreatic cancer, her company said.

Ride made history in 1983 as a crew member on the space shuttle Challenger, breaking the gender barrier for U.S. spaceflight. Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963, but it took another 20 years for NASA to follow suit.

Word of Ride's death came in an announcement from Sally Ride Science, the educational venture she founded after leaving NASA.

President Barack Obama said he and his wife, Michelle, were "deeply saddened" by the news.

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

NASA's leaders issued tributes as well.

"Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism — and literally changed the face of America's space program," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. "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."

NASA's deputy administrator, Lori Garver, said Ride "was a personal and professional role model to me and thousands of women around the world."

"Her spirit and determination will continue to be an inspiration for women everywhere," Garver said.

Huge expectations
Ride was a mission specialist on her first mission, STS-7, which put the Canadian Anik C-2 and the Indonesian Palapa B-1 communication satellites into orbit. In an 2008 interview timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the flight, Ride acknowledged that her status as the first American woman "carried huge expectations along with it."

"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," she said.

Thousands of spectators wore T-shirts and buttons emblazoned with the slogan "Ride, Sally, Ride" on launch day.

More tributes stream in: 'Ride, Sally, Ride'

Ride made a second space shuttle flight in 1984, also aboard Challenger, and was in training for her third mission when Challenger exploded in 1986, killing all seven crew members. She left the space agency a year later, and served for years as a physics professor and director of the California Space Institute.

In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science, a which is aimed at promoting math and science for girls. One of her projects was to develop a camera that could fly aboard spacecraft and take pictures for middle-school students. The fruits of those efforts include EarthKAM on the International Space Station and MoonKAM on the GRAIL lunar probes.

"What might seem like just a cool activity for these kids may very well have a profound impact on their futures," Ride said after the first student-requested MoonKAM pictures were released in March of this year.

Investigated two tragedies
Ride was the only person to serve on both of the investigative boards for NASA's two shuttle tragedies, the Challenger explosion as well as the 2003 loss of Columbia and its crew. She was also a member of the commission that laid out space policy options for the Obama administration in 2009. That panel's conclusions led the White House to cancel a plan to send astronauts back to the moon, known as the Constellation program, and instead set the nation's sights on exploring near-Earth asteroids, leading eventually to missions to Mars.

When the commission completed its report, Ride bristled over the limitations that NASA's exploration efforts faced. "This budget is just simply not friendly to exploration," she said. "It's very difficult to find an exploration scenario that actually fits within this very restrictive budget guidance that we've been given."

Why is pancreatic cancer so deadly?

The announcement of Ride's death noted that she is survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy, who is the chief operating officer and executive vice president for content at Sally Ride Science. Other survivors include her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear; her niece, Caitlin; and her nephew, Whitney. Ride was married to fellow astronaut Steven Hawley in 1982, but they divorced in 1987 with no children.

Hawley, who is now a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, remembered Ride in a NASA statement as "a very private person who found herself a very public persona."

"While she never enjoyed being a celebrity, she recognized that it gave her the opportunity to encourage children, particularly young girls, to reach their full potential," Hawley said. "Sally Ride, the astronaut and the person, allowed many young girls across the world to believe they could achieve anything if they studied and worked hard. I think she would be pleased with that legacy."

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Photos: Astronaut Sally Ride

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  1. NASA astronaut Sally K. Ride, in January 1983 at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, prior to flying aboard Space Shuttle Challenger. Ride, the first US woman to fly in space, died on July 23 after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer, her foundation announced. She was 61. Ride first launched into space in 1983, on the seventh US space shuttle mission. (AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. NASA astronaut Sally Ride June 1983 next to an airplane. (AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Sally Ride and fellow members of STS-7. Bottom row, next to Ride: Crew commander Robert Crippen, pilot Frederick Hauck. Back row: Mission specialists John Fabian and Norman Thagard. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Astronaut Sally Ride inspects an array of tools while in orbit aboard Challenger. The circular object is a Monodisperse Latex Reactor. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Astronaut Sally Ride takes a photograph from aboard Challenger. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Astronaut Sally Ride, mission specialist on STS-7, monitors control panels from the pilot's chair on the Flight Deck of the Space Shuttle Challenger in this NASA handout photo dated June 25, 1983. Floating in front of her is a flight procedures notebook. Ride died July 23, 2012 after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. US President Barack Obama greets former astronaut Sally Ride in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House in Washington. (Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Tributes pour in for first US woman in space

  1. Closed captioning of: Tributes pour in for first US woman in space

    >>> tributes are pouring in for astronaut sally ride , the first american woman in space. she died monday after a long battle with pancreatic cancer . nbc's rehema ellis has more.

    >> reporter: sally ride was the first american woman to wear the uniform and make the memorable journey into space . she was trained as a physicist but ride will always be remembered as an astronaut and crew member who orbited the earth on board the space shuttle "challenger" almost 30 years ago.

    >> i think there are a few people that are waiting to see how i do.

    >> reporter: what she did captured the nation's imagination and made her a household name. out of 8,000 who applied for the space program in the late 1970s , she was one of the chosen to enter what had been an exclusive men's club. even after she left nasa, she continued on her mission to inspire young people , especially girls, which she spoke about recently during nbc's education nation summit.

    >> maybe most important it's the teachers in the schools holding the high expectation and getting the message to the students, the girls as well as the boys, that we expect you to do well.

    >> reporter: sally ride died at age 61 from pancreatic cancer , an american hero , became a symbol for everyone, mostly women, who broke through barriers like she

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