WASHINGTON — Sally K. Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, will quit the astronaut corps in August and join Stanford University's Center for International Security and Arms Controls, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said Tuesday.
The surprise announcement from NASA headquarters came as Ride, 36, neared the end of a much-anticipated study on the long-range future of the U.S. space program and nearly four years after her history-making orbital flight aboard the shuttle Challenger. Her departure will leave 11 women in the ranks of 83 active astronauts.
An astrophysicist who never enjoyed the notoriety that came with her six-day voyage in 1983, Ride returned to space as a shuttle mission specialist in 1984 and, in the wake of the January, 1986, Challenger explosion, served as a member of the presidential panel investigating history's worst space accident.
The investigation into the accident that claimed the lives of seven crew members turned a blazing spotlight on NASA's ill-fated decision to launch the vehicle in record cold temperatures and Ride surprised some observers with pointed questions to agency officials.
Former Secretary of State William P. Rogers, who headed the accident probe, Tuesday hailed Ride as a woman of "great honesty, determination and courage."
NASA officials said that Ride, an assistant to the administrator for long-range and strategic planning, would continue her assessment of the United States' strategic space objectives until mid-August.
There had been no hint of her departure, although several astronauts, seeing their flight opportunities postponed by the long delay for the redesign of the grounded shuttle system, have opted to move on to other pursuits.
In a statement released by the space agency after the announcement, Ride said that her years as an astronaut had "provided unique challenges and have allowed me to grow as a scientist and a person."
"It is in that same spirit of challenge that I have accepted a position at Stanford University," she said.
Other Work in Mind
In an interview published six months ago, Ride acknowledged that she had thought of other work but said that she had no intention then of quitting.
She was selected as an astronaut in 1978. After her trail-blazing 1983 flight aboard Challenger, she again flew as a mission specialist on an eight-day shuttle voyage in 1984, working with Kathryn D. Sullivan, the second American woman in space, who attended the San Fernando Valley's Havenhurst Elementary School with her.
During her first mission, Ride operated a cargo-handling arm in the shuttle's cargo bay, deploying and retrieving a 3,200-pound instrument package. She also helped launch a seven-ton communications satellite.
On her second flight, Ride was overshadowed by her fellow Californian, Sullivan, who became the first American woman to walk in space.
Besides being the country's most experienced female in space, Ride had served in key mission control posts, most notably serving as the control center's communicator with the flight crew on four shuttle missions.
NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher, announcing Ride's departure Tuesday, said that her first flight "firmly established an equal role for women in the space exploration program. Today, the assignment of women to shuttle crews is a routine matter based on ability and need and is no longer a cause for notice.
"The country is fortunate that her energy, intelligence and good sense will continue to be focused on matters of vital public interest: security and arms control," Fletcher said.
Ride will take up her new position as science fellow at the Center for International Security and Arms Control next fall. In joining Stanford, she will be returning to her alma mater, where she earned a Ph.D. in astrophysics.