Sally Ride, the first American female and youngest American to explore space in person, died yesterday at age 61. Ms. Ride was a leader among women and astronomers alike. After battling pancreatic cancer, Ride is reported to have died peacefully at her home in La Jolla, California.

Ride attended Stanford University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in physics, a master’s degree in science, and a doctorate in physics. When she was selected by NASA to train for the space program in 1978, she found that her physics degrees weren’t enough to get her into space and back safely. Ride continued her education in math, computers, guidance and navigation, basic science, and meteorology in preparation for her launch aboard the space shuttle. She learned to fly a T-38 trainer jet before she was allowed to fly Challenger into space in 1983.

Sally Ride broke through the glass ceiling by breaking through Earth’s atmosphere. Until NASA selected her for the program, astronauts had been selected from the United States’ military elite. Not only was she the first American female, but she was also the first American chosen from the fields of science and academia, with no military training. Ride and NASA both made clear before her first Challenger launch that she had been chosen on her own merit and not simply because of her gender. In doing so, Ride paved the way for those without military training, as well as for women, to enter the space program.

Ride was placed on the commission that investigated the 1986 Challenger explosion, during which time she ceased astronaut training and moved to NASA’s Washington office. She retired from NASA in 1987, and returned to academia to work at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Arms Control. Two years later, Ride accepted a job at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography as director of the California Space Institute. She simultaneously taught physics at UC San Diego.

In 2001, Sally Ride turned her attention to encouraging women and girls to go into the sciences. She founded Sally Ride Science Academy and authored five children’s books toward that goal. Ride’s work lives on through the generations of females who she inspired to indulge their interests in the sciences and not be put off by fields that are male-dominated. Sally Ride is survived by her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy; her mother, Joyce; her sister, Karen; and a niece and nephew.