By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY
Streaking through a cloud-flecked Saturday morning sky, the space shuttle carried Sally Ride into history, the first American woman in space on June 18, 1983.
But Ride was more than just a physicist, educator and astronaut. She carried the hopes and aspirations of a generation on the flight, a symbol of the ascent of American women in our nation's working life.
Ride, 61, died Monday of pancreatic cancer. In her lifetime, she twice visited space, took a leading role in NASA's response to both space shuttle disasters and devoted herself to education, seeking to inspire more young women to pursue life in science.
PHOTOS: Sally Ride dead at 61
"Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model. She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars," President Obama said in a statement.
"The nation has lost one of its finest leaders, teachers and explorers," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, said in a statement . "Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism - and literally changed the face of America's space program."
Ride was part of the first class of female astronauts in 1978, a turn away from the exclusively male, military pilots of the Apollo era to mission specialists, doctors and scientists in the space shuttle era.
"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 2008 space agency interview. "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."
Her launch riveted the nation, the seventh space shuttle trip sent to orbit and the second by the space shuttle Challenger.
"People pulled off the road in Florida to see the launch, waving signs that said 'Ride, Sally Ride,' for miles around. It was a very big deal," says space historian Margaret Weitekamp of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. "She never really traded on her celebrity. She saw being an astronaut as a way to advance science and allow other young women to take the same opportunities she had."
Ride took part in both reviews of space agency failures following the 1986 Challenger and the 2003 Columbia tragedies, as well the 2009 blue-ribbon panel that set the course for NASA's current astronauts' plans.
But it was in education, particularly inspiring girls to pursue careers in science, engineering and technology, that Ride focused her efforts after leaving NASA to teach at the University of California-San Diego. She also founded her own company, Sally Ride Science, which organized camps, festivals and an academy to inspire kids.
"She was on the short list of many administrations to head NASA," says Roger Launius, who was NASA's chief historian during Ride's flight. "But she never pursued that track. She could have. She was always more interested in education"
A private person despite her fame, news of Ride's death after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer surprised many in the space community.
"Sally lived her life to the fullest, with boundless energy, curiosity, intelligence, passion, commitment and love," said a statement from Sally Ride Science on Monday.
In addition to educator Tam O'Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years, she was survived by her mother, Joyce; her sister, Bear; her niece, Caitlin, and nephew, Whitney, the statement said.