July 23, 2012 at 11:25 PM ET
If Sally Ride could have flown in space without the hubbub over being the first American woman to do so, she'd have done it in a heartbeat. Celebrity wasn't her thing. The final frontier was.
That comes through loud and clear in Ride's own reminiscences of her selection as NASA's first female space traveler. She recalled getting a "little chat" from Chris Kraft, the head of NASA's Johnson Space Center, just to make sure "I knew what I was getting into before I agreed to be on the crew."
"But I was so dazzled just by the opportunity to be on the crew and go into space that I really don't remember very much of what he said," she said.
Ride had to deal with the full force of the media hoopla surrounding her history-making spaceflight in 1983. One questioner asked whether she'd wear a bra in space. "There is no sag in zero-G," she famously answered. (By some accounts, NASA research since then has led to the development of better sports bras.)
Eventually, Ride found it easier to avoid the celebrity spotlight. "I'm the sort of person who likes to be able to just walk into the supermarket and not be recognized," she told The Associated Press in 2003. "I can do that most of the time now. A lot of people recognize the name. Very few recognize my face. That's very good."
Now that Ride has passed away at the age of 61, after battling pancreatic cancer for 17 months, there's going to be another posthumous surge of celebrity. Once again, there'll be chatter about Ride's illness, which she reportedly asked NASA not to publicize, as well as her personal relationships. But for now, the focus should be squarely on her contribution to space exploration — as the woman who broke the space barrier, who helped investigate two of NASA's toughest tragedies, who helped shape America's space vision, and who fostered the next generation of explorers through such ventures as Sally Ride Science, EarthKAM and MoonKAM. That's the legacy that comes through loud and clear in the tributes from the White House and NASA, as well as the tributes from these other luminaries:
Eileen Collins, NASA's first woman shuttle commander:
"I am surprised and saddened by the news of Sally Ride’s passing. She was such a wonderful role model and source of inspiration to me. People around the world still recognize her name as the first American woman in space, and she took that title seriously even after departing NASA. She mentored me several times during my astronaut career, leaving me with many cherished memories. She never sought media attention for herself, but rather focused on doing her normally outstanding job. Her Sally Ride Science programs have reached thousands of middle-school girls, giving them the confidence to stay focused on math and science, even when the mass media message was otherwise. She also played a notable role in both the Challenger and Columbia accident investigations. Sally left us too soon. Godspeed, Sally, you will be greatly missed."
Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidate; former Massachusetts governor:
"Today, America lost one of its greatest pioneers. The first American woman in space, Sally Ride inspired millions of Americans with her determination to break the mold of her time. She was a profile in courage, and while she will be missed, her accomplishments will never be forgotten."
Bill Nye (the Science Guy), executive director, Planetary Society:
"Sally Ride changed the world. We are very sorry to hear of her recent death after a nearly two-year battle with cancer. Dr. Ride was an excellent astronaut, a remarkable educator, and a longtime Planetary Society friend and adviser. Her particular passion was to get girls excited about science. She did just that. Her Sally Ride Science programs, which include camps, academies, educator institutes and festivals, will carry her legacy into the future. I encourage everyone to take a moment over the next few days and honor Sally Ride by giving a young person a reminder that she or he could pursue a career in science and change the world just as Sally did. She will be missed."
Nancy Conrad, founder and chairman of the Conrad Foundation; widow of Apollo moonwalker Pete Conrad:
"The Conrad Foundation and our students and partners are saddened to hear of Sally Ride’s untimely death. Sally was a great physicist, astronaut, educator and American hero. She dedicated her life to bringing the world of science to girls with her Sally Ride Science Academy and Camps. She was a wonderful role model for young women and girls and will be sadly missed. We salute her contribution to our nation and to our future."
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., chairman of the Senate Science and Space Subcommittee:
"Sally Ride was one of the great pioneers as the first American woman in space. The whole nation was with her when she launched, lifting her up on a chorus of 'Ride, Sally, Ride.'"
U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, chairman, House Science, Space and Technology Committee:
"I am very saddened by the news that my friend Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut to fly in space, has passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer. Sally was an inspiration to all, and her historic flight into space showed aspiring young women that they too could be successful in fields such as physics and engineering that had historically been dominated by men. Generations to come will reflect on Sally as an individual who broke barriers, demonstrated brave leadership, and taught the world to think a little differently. Sally’s legacy will be reflected in all of the young girls she inspired to pursue careers in science and engineering."
Neil deGrasse Tyson, director, Hayden Planetarium: "Space programs create unique portfolios of heroes — in life and in death. US Shuttle astronaut Sally Ride 1951-2012, RIP."
Doug King, president and CEO, Museum of Flight:
"We are saddened by the news of Sally Ride’s death and send our deepest condolences to her family. Many of us clearly remember in 1983, watching her board the space shuttle Challenger as she literally blazed a trail as the first woman in space. She touched all of our lives and in particular was an incredible role model for young women everywhere, demonstrating that a career as an astronaut could be reality. We have a great deal of respect for her accomplishments as an astronaut and an educator and her lifelong dedication to STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math). She will be missed."
Lon Rains, chairman, Coalition for Space Exploration:
"Today, the Coalition for Space Exploration is saddened to say goodbye to our dear friend and colleague Sally Ride — physicist, astronaut, educator and American hero. After her trailblazing career in space, Sally dedicated her life to the mission of opening the world of science to girls, with the Sally Ride Science Academy and Camps. She was a role model, a mentor and one of our most effective champions for STEM education. Our sorrow in her passing is only exceeded by our deep respect and gratitude for her contributions to our nation and our future."
Elliot Pulham, CEO, Space Foundation:
"The space community, teachers and students around the world have lost a great friend and role model. Sally was more than a trailblazing astronaut and brilliant scientist. She was deeply concerned about the state of education in the United States, and worked tirelessly to reach students, especially at-risk young women, with programs filled with hope and inspiration — to enable our next generation of explorers. Whether on board a space shuttle, inside a corporate board room, or with students at one of her Sally Ride Science events, she was a motivational and inspiring leader. She was a friend to all explorers, and she will be deeply missed."
Scott Parazynski, chairman, Challenger Center for Space Science Education:
"We are deeply saddened to hear of Sally Ride's passing. Her passion brought STEM education to the forefront and for that we will be forever grateful. She will continue to be a great source of inspiration for students around the globe. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and loved ones."
Other untimely passings:
Feel free to add your own tributes and reminiscences about the past, as well as reflections about Sally Ride's legacy for future generations, in the comment space below.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.