Sally Ride, mission specialist on STS-7, monitors control panels from the pilot's chair on the Space Shuttle's Flight Deck in 1983.NASA/Getty.

July 23, 2012 -- Sally K. Ride, the first American woman to orbit Earth, died Monday after a 17-month bout with pancreatic cancer. She was 61.

Selected as an astronaut in 1978, Ride blasted off with four male colleagues on June 18, 1983, on space shuttle Challenger, the seventh flight of the program.

"The whole nation was with her when she launched, lifting her up on a chorus of 'Ride, Sally, Ride,'" recalled U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, who flew as a guest aboard the shuttle two years later.

Ride wasn't the first woman in space. That distinction fell to the Soviet Union's Valentina Tereshkova, who launched aboard a Vostok 6 rocket on June 16, 1963.

But over the years only two other Russian woman followed Tereshkova into orbit. By the time Ride returned for a second flight in 1984, not only had fellow astronaut Judith Resnik already flown on the shuttle, but Ride had a female crewmate, Kathryn Sullivan, aboard.

"The fact that I was going to be the first American woman to go into space carried huge expectations along with it," Ride recalled in an interview for the 25th anniversary of her flight in 2008.

"On launch day, there was so much excitement and so much happening around us in crew quarters, even on the way to the launch pad," Ride said. "I didn't really think about it that much at the time -- but I came to appreciate what an honor it was to be selected to be the first to get a chance to go into space."

Ride's death was announced on the website of Sally Ride Science, an educational organization that Ride founded in 2001. Her aim was to draw young people, particularly girls, into the world of math, science, engineering and technology.

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"She had the rare ability to understand the essence of things and to inspire those around her to join her pursuits," her website said.

"Sally's historic flight into space captured the nation's imagination and made her a household name. She became a symbol of the ability of women to break barriers and a hero to generations of adventurous young girls."

President Barack Obama offered his condolences.

"Michelle and I were deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Sally Ride," Obama said in a statement." Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model. I have no doubt that her legacy will endure for years to come."

"Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism -- and literally changed the face of America's space program," added NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, himself a former astronaut.

"The nation has lost one of its finest leaders, teachers and explorers," Bolden said in a statement. "She will be missed, but her star will always shine brightly."

Ride was selected for a third mission, but training was halted by the 1986 Challenger disaster. Instead of flying in space, Ride was tapped to be a member of the presidential commission that investigated the accident, a panel that included Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon and physicist Richard Feynman, a Nobel laureate.

She then transferred to NASA headquarters in Washington to serve the administrator as an advisor and strategic planner.

Ride left the agency in 1987 and returned to Stanford University, her alma mater. Two years later, she accepted a position in the physics department at the University of California-San Diego.

Ride, who held a doctorate in physics, authored seven children's science books and spearheaded a campaign to let schoolkids operate a camera on GRAIL, a NASA moon-orbiting science probe.

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Former husband Steve Hawley, a fellow former astronaut, said in a statement that Ride was a very private person who never became fully comfortable with her celebrity.

"She recognized that it gave her the opportunity to encourage children, particularly young girls, to reach their full potential," said Hawley, who now teaches astronomy at the University of Kansas.

"Sally Ride, the astronaut and the person, allowed many young girls across the world to believe they could achieve anything if they studied and worked hard. I think she would be pleased with that legacy," he said.

Ride is survived by her partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy, her mother, Joyce, a sister, a niece and a nephew.

-- by Irene Klotz