By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Sally Ride was the first U.S. woman in space and a role model for women everywhere. But one group had to wait until her death this week to claim her as a member - the gay community.
In a statement prepared before her death on Monday of pancreatic cancer, Ride, 61, acknowledged publicly for the first time that she had a longstanding relationship with a woman, Tam O'Shaughnessy, who was her partner in business, science writing and life.
The astronaut's website, Sally Ride Science, listed O'Shaughnessy, Ride's partner for nearly 30 years, as a survivor.
"Most people did not know that Sally had a wonderfully loving relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy for 27 years," Ride's sister wrote in a tribute that was posted on MSNBC.com.
"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," Bear Ride said.
"We consider Tam a member of our family," she said.
Ride flew on the seventh space shuttle mission in 1983, the first time a woman was included as a member of the crew. She made a second flight a year later, then served on the blue-ribbon-panel that investigated the 1986 Challenger disaster.
Ride left the U.S. space agency, NASA, in 1987.
For the past 12 years, her focus had been on Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based educational agency that develops science camps, projects and publications to promote math, science, engineering and technology.
Ride co-founded Sally Ride Science with O'Shaughnessy, a professor of psychology and children's science writer, who serves as the chief operating officer.
The two reportedly were childhood friends.
Ride was married to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley from 1982 to 1987. In a statement after her death, Hawley said Ride was a very private person who found herself a public persona.
"It was a role in which she was never fully comfortable," Hawley said.
The Human Rights Campaign, the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights group in the United States, posted a tribute to Sally Ride on the front page of its website on Tuesday.
"In the midst of my shock at hearing the news of her death (Monday) I found a reason to admire her even more," Allyson Robinson, a deputy director of the group, wrote in a blog.
"The experience of being 'first' led Dr. Ride to value her privacy dearly, and I would certainly never fault her for it. I feel blessed to know that my hero and I shared a little more in common than I knew. I just wish I'd known sooner," Robinson said.
(Editing By Tom Brown; Editing by David Brunnstrom)