When the door opened for Sally Ride to become the first American woman to orbit in space in 1983, she worked the rest of her life to ensure that door did not close for the women who came after her.
Ride died Monday at her home in La Jolla, Calif., after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 61.
"Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model," President Barack Obama said in a statement. "She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars," he said.
Ride was a physicist when she was chosen to be a crewmember on the first of three scheduled flights of the space shuttle Challenger. She returned to space again on the Challenger's second flight in 1984, in all logging 343 hours in space.
After the Challenger exploded seconds after launch on Jan. 28, 1986, killing all seven astronauts aboard-including two women, Judith Resnik and Christa McAuliffe-Ride was on the commission investigating what happened.
She left NASA in 1987 but returned briefly to serve on a similar commission looking into the 2003 Columbia shuttle accident, becoming the only person to serve on both boards.
She then embarked upon what possibly is her greatest legacy: encouraging young girls to get involved in science careers. Up to that time, few women sought careers in math and science, in large part because they were not encouraged to embark in that field of study as youngsters. Ride grew up loving math and science and wanted to bring that love and excitement to other young girls so they, too, could have the opportunities she had been given. To that end she wrote five books about space for young girls. In 2001, she started a company, Sally Ride Science, that offers such things as science camps and daylong science festivals to middle school girls. Sally Ride Science still operates and has changed the lives of many women.
"Sally literally could have done anything with her life," Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Maria Zuber told the Associated Press. "She decided to devote her life to education and to inspiring young people. To me, that's such a powerful thing. It's extraordinarily admirable."
Sally Ride was truly an American hero, both because of what she accomplished as an astronaut in space and for what she accomplished as an educator here on earth.