Ride was appointed by President Reagan to serve on the panel investigating the tragedy, a job she would repeat in 2003 after the loss of the shuttle Columbia.
Ride left NASA after the Challenger disaster, turning her life to writing, teaching, speaking, and entrepreneurship. She said she had been an outlier when she turned to science in school; she wanted more young women to feel welcome in the mostly male world of technology.
She was not the first woman ever in orbit. Back in 1963, the Soviet Union launched Valentina Tereshkova on a three-day flight in its Vostok 6 capsule.
But American political leaders, locked in a space race with the Russians, derided the flight as a publicity stunt on which Tereshkova was mostly a passenger. No more women would fly in space for nearly 20 years.
Ride married a fellow astronaut, Steven Hawley, in 1982; the marriage ended in divorce in 1987. Her company said that for the last 27 years, she had a partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy, and they lived in the San Diego area. She is also survived by her mother, Joyce, and a sister, a niece and a nephew.
"Sally was a very private person who found herself a very public persona," said Hawley, now a professor at the University of Kansas. "While she never enjoyed being a celebrity, she recognized that it gave her the opportunity to encourage children, particularly young girls, to reach their full potential."
Ride's effect on younger women was electric. Astronaut Dottie Metcalfe-Lindenburger, who flew on one of the very last shuttle flights, said she was inspired in her childhood by Ride's example.
"I grew up during the shuttle age, so I was really excited in the second grade when we started flying the shuttle and I remember watching that in our class," Metcalfe-Lindenburger said in a 2009 interview with ABC News. "Somehow I realized that women could become astronauts."