How did Sally Ride die? Her secret battle against cancer

Sally Ride

In episode six of The Last of Us, Ellie reveals that after the world’s salvation, she plans to go to the moon, like Sally Ride did in 1983, becoming the first American woman to fly in space. Ellie, whose life in QZ inspired her love for space, has extensive knowledge about astronauts and considers Sally Ride her favorite. 

Ride joined NASA in 1978 as part of the first class of NASA astronauts to include women. She flew two space missions, logging more than 343 hours in space. Ride was scheduled to fly a third mission, but NASA canceled it following the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. 

Ride died after a valiant 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer

Sally Ride died on 23rd July 2012 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Ride’s sister, Bear, told the Broward Palm Beach New Times that Ride died two weeks after entering hospice care. “She had a smile on her face and was surrounded by her family,” Bear said. “Her work here was done.”

In March 2011, Ride’s partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, noted that the astronaut wasn’t feeling well. A check-up revealed that Ride had a large cancerous tumor in her abdomen. Bear stated that chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery almost cured Ride:

“She’s been beating it off for 16, 17 months, and she went through chemo and then had fairly extensive surgery this October. And then some more chemo, and she really thought she was coming out ahead of it. But in the end, it just wasn’t enough.”

Ride’s death surprised many as she’d fought the illness in secret. The astronaut had no interest in the fame that her pioneering space travels brought. In an email to NBC News, Bear wrote:

“In her inherent Norwegian reticence – in this and so many other aspects of her personal life (wrestling with pancreatic cancer, for example) – she just didn’t talk much (see Norwegian comment, and add to that the typical tight-lipped scientist thing).”

Tributes celebrating Ride’s achievements flooded in after news of her death broke. President Obama called Ride a ‘national hero and a powerful role model’. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said Ride ‘literally changed the face of America’s space program’.

In August 2012, Ride’s ashes were interred beside her father, Dale, at Santa Monica’s Woodlawn Cemetery. “Santa Monica is honored to be the final resting place of Dr. Sally Ride,” Mayor Richard Bloom stated. “She inspired millions as the first American woman astronaut.”

Ride came out as a lesbian astronaut after her death

Ride kept breaking barriers even after her death – she came out as the first LGBTQ+ astronaut. Her obituary on Sally Ride Science revealed her nearly three-decade relationship with Tam O’Shaughnessy. 

Sally Ride and Tam O’Shaughnessy with their dog, gypsy, in 1992
Sally Ride and Tam O’Shaughnessy with their dog, gypsy, in 1992

Aged 12, Ride and Tam became friends on the tennis court. They separated in pursuit of different careers but kept in touch. Their relationship turned romantic in 1985, three years after Ride married fellow astronaut Steven Hawley. Steven knew the marriage would likely end, but he didn’t know about Ride’s affair. 

Steven and Ride’s 1987 divorce paved the way for her relationship with Tam. In a tribute to Ride sent to NBC News, Bear wrote:

“Most people did not know that Sally had a wonderfully loving relationship with Tam O’Shaughnessy for 27 years. Sally never hid her relationship with Tam. They were partners, business partners in Sally Ride Science, they wrote books together, and Sally’s very close friends, of course, knew of their love for each other.”

Very few people knew about Tam and Ride’s romance. Ride’s biographer and close friend, Lynn Sherr, told Scientific American that despite sharing a close bond with Ride, she didn’t know about her relationship. “I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say that [her secrecy] hurt me a tiny bit,” Sherr said. 

Sherr opined that without Tam’s intervention, the relationship would have remained secret. “Sally would have died without ever saying a word,” Sherr said. “There’s no evidence that she had any intention of talking about this.”

On top of Ride’s embrace of unwavering secrecy, she likely kept her sexuality hidden to preserve her career. Michelle Evans, a space historian, told Futurism:

“Sally didn’t feel comfortable coming out as who she was because she knew the conservative nature of that institution that she was a part of. Both NASA and the federal government as a whole was very, very conservative.”

“I can’t imagine being gay in those days and feeling the least bit comfortable about saying anything about it at NASA,” Sherr told Scientific American. “She wouldn’t have been hired, she wouldn’t have been selected and she never would have flown. It was different era.”