ADVANCE FOR USE TUESDAY, JULY 5, 2011 AND THEREAFTER - FILE - In this June 1983 photo provided by NASA, astronaut Sally Ride, a specialist on shuttle mission STS-7, monitors control panels from the pilot's chair on the shuttle Columbia flight deck. Ride became America's first woman in space when Columbia launched June 18, 1983.ASSOCIATED PRESS

Sally Ride, the first woman to orbit space, inspired thousands of girls to follow careers in math and science. Her career took her into space twice. She was part of the team that investigated the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters.

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After she retired from NASA, she launched the Sally Ride Science Academy, in partnership with ExxonMobil, to better prepare teachers to engage their students in math and science.

It has been documented that exposing girls to successful role modes enables them to see that "people like them can be successful in these fields."

Ride, a physicist, has said she was also encouraged by a teacher to study science.

"She challenged me to be curious, to ask questions, and to think about things for myself," she said on her website. "She helped build my self-confidence. And all these things helped me to become a scientist and an astronaut."

On June 18, 1983, Ride made history when she became the first U.S. woman to fly in space aboard the space shuttle Challenger, where she and her colleagues operated a robotic arm, and received a satellite, according to the website.

At that time, according to an Associated Press story, she'd get peppered with sexist questions by reporters wanting to know if she cried when things didn't go as planned.

"It's too bad this society isn't further along and this is still such a big deal," she once lamented, according to the AP article.

Her contributions were recognized in many areas. In 1988, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame, and was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame at the Kennedy Space Center. U.S. News & World Report named her one of America's Best Leaders.

President Obama called her a national hero and powerful role model.

"She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars and later fought tirelessly to help them get there by advocating for a greater focus on science and math in our schools," Obama said in a statement.

The Associated Press reports that she died in her home in La Jolla, Calif. She was 61. She is survived by her partner of 27 years, her mother, sister, niece and nephew.

(Related, from The Atlantic Wire: Sally Ride and the Coming End of a 'Coming Out' Obituary

This article is part of our Next America: Communities project, which is supported by a grant from Emerson Collective.

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