Sally Ride, America's first female astronaut, has lost her fight with pancreatic cancer at the age of 61 - prompting a wave of tributes from the space exploration community.

Ride, who made history by taking part in the Challenger expedition in 1983, was "an inspiration for women everywhere," according to Nasa deputy administer Lori Garver.

Garver's Nasa colleague, administrator Charles Bolden, said that Ride "broke barriers with grace and professionalism - and literally changed the face of America's space programme.

"The nation has lost one of its finest leaders, teachers and explorers. Our thoughts and prayers are with Sally's family and the many she inspired. She will be missed, but her star will always shine brightly."

Born in Los Angeles in 1951, Ride joined Nasa in 1978. After several years of training, she took part in the second flight of the space shuttle Challenger, departing with four male colleagues on 18 June 1983.

In 1984 Ride boarded Challenger for a second time as a mission specialist. She spent more than 343 hours in space.

After leaving Nasa in 1987, Ride became a professor of physics at the University of California and later a director at the California Space Station. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a company that creates fun-filled science programmes for school students.

In 2008, in a Nasa interview, Ride spoke about her space travel experience. "The fact that I was going to be the first American woman to go into space carried huge expectations along with it," she said.

"I didn't really think about it that much at the time, but I came to appreciate what an honour it was to be selected to be the first to get a chance to go into space."

Ride won several accolades for her achievements, incluiding the Jefferson award for public service, the von Braun Award and the NCAA's Theodore Roosevelt Award. She was also inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame and the Astronaut Hall of Fame.