Sally Kristen Ride died in Los Angeles on 23 July 2012 of pancreatic cancer. Born on 26 May 1951, Sally had bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics, a bachelor’s degree in English, and a doctorate in astrophysics, all from Stanford University. Given her place in history as the first US female astronaut in space, I offer here a few personal memories from the era when having women in the astronaut office was a novelty.

Sally was one of six incredibly talented women selected as NASA’s first female astronauts. NASA had not selected any new astronauts since the late 1960s, when the Apollo program was in full swing. Most of the early astronauts were military test pilots. The space shuttle, which could accommodate up to seven crew members but needed only two pilots, created new possibilities for scientists, engineers, and medical doctors who previously had not considered being an astronaut as a realistic career goal. In addition, social mores had changed by 1977, and from more than 8000 applicants, NASA winnowed the selection to a short list of 200 candidates, including women and ethnic minorities.

Like Sally, I joined NASA in 1978, a fellow member of the first class of space shuttle astronauts. Over a period of 10 weeks, the candidates went to the Johnson Space Center in Texas, in groups of 20, for extensive medical and psychological exams and an interview with the Astronaut Selection Board. I first met Sally in October, during a week mostly devoted to physicists and astronomers. As it turned out, three astronomers—Sally, George Nelson, and I—from that group of 20 candidates were selected to train as astronauts. A fourth astronomer, Steve Hawley, was selected in another week, so we felt an “astronomers’ pride” in having done well statistically among the 35 astronauts—15 pilots and 20 nonpilot mission specialists—eventually selected.

Shortly after the selections were announced, NASA brought us down to Houston for an initial orientation and for public presentation to the media. A frequent topic of conversation was why we had applied for the job. Those of us who had dreamt of flying in space since we were kids were amazed to find out that Sally and many others had never really thought about it until they saw an advertisement from NASA. Having turned down an opportunity to play semiprofessional tennis several years before, Sally was just finishing up her PhD on free-electron lasers, and when she realized she might meet the astronaut qualifications, she decided to give it a go.

The post-Apollo astronaut corps had dwindled to fewer than 30, so the new recruits constituted a major change. For the first time, scientists, engineers, and doctors made up a sizable fraction of the class. Military customs still pervaded the astronaut office, though, including the practice of calling people by their last names. The military pilots in the astronaut office in the late 1970s had never served with women, and they apparently found it difficult to call Sally or her five female colleagues by their last names. So soon it was “Sally” rather than “Ride,” and within a few months the men were using their first names as well. That is perhaps the humanizing impact that many psychologists have noted among mixed-gender crews compared with all-male ones.

The men, including me, in our class sympathized with the intense attention the women had to endure, but at the same time, we appreciated that it reduced the public affairs burden on us. For example, during part of the water survival training at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida, we were put into individual life rafts and set adrift in the ocean. Each of the six rafts holding a woman astronaut was surrounded by a gaggle of boats rented out by press photographers. For the women, “water survival” seemed to consist mostly of fending off boats that approached too close.

Inside the astronaut office, though, nobody made distinctions between men and women regarding work assignments or performance expectations. Any of the six women selected in 1978 could have been the first to fly, but that honor and responsibility fell on Sally; as they say, the rest is history. Since that time, women have walked in space, commanded the space shuttle, done long-duration missions on space stations, and become chief of the astronaut office.

Sally could have used her name recognition for personal enrichment, but she chose instead to devote herself to the public good. In the last stage of her career, she ran the Sally Ride Science program, which she established to interest young girls in science and show them that they can have exciting scientific careers. The last time I saw her was during a Sally Ride Science event in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I am left with the image of Sally, surrounded by enthusiastic young girls, none of whom had been alive while she was an astronaut, but who had heard enough from their parents to realize that some of the exciting possibilities open to them were thanks to what she had done many years ago. That may be Sally’s most important and lasting legacy.

Sally Kristen Ride