Former NASA astronaut Sally K. Ride, a Stanford-educated physicist who used her clout to inspire generations of future women scientists, died on Monday after a 17-month bout with cancer. She was 61.

“Sallymania” swept the nation in 1983 when Ride, the first American woman — and then-youngest American astronaut — rocketed into space, manipulating a 50-foot-long robot arm to retrieve a 3,200-pound satellite from aboard the Challenger space shuttle.

Smiling and smart, strong and confident, she was comfortable in a world dominated by crew-cutted men, igniting the imagination of nerdy girls who couldn’t see themselves in the “World and Space” pages of Childcraft encyclopedias.

“NASA has lost a great role model, the nation has lost a great hero, and Ames has lost a great friend,” NASA Ames Research Center Director S. Pete Worden said.

Once earthbound, Ride dedicated herself to founding San Diego-based Sally Ride Science, an organization that helps create engaging science programs for tweens, especially young girls. She also co-founded the Girls Scouts’ Camp CEO, which introduces minority girls to professional women, and frequently spoke about the importance of strong science education.

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