Mary Cleave, the NASA astronaut who in 1989 became the first woman to fly on a space shuttle mission after the Challenger disaster, has died at the age of 76 in Annapolis.
NASA did not give a cause of death, the space agency announced last week.
“I’m sad we’ve lost trail blazer Dr. Mary Cleave, shuttle astronaut, veteran of two spaceflights, and first woman to lead the Science Mission Directorate as associate administrator,” said NASA Associate Administrator Bob Cabana in a statement. “Mary was a force of nature with a passion for science, exploration, and caring for our home planet. She will be missed.”
Cleave — who died Nov. 27, according to the statement — was a native of Great Neck, New York, but had lived in Annapolis since 1991. She studied biological sciences at Colorado State University before going on to earn her master’s in microbial ecology and a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering from Utah State University.
Cleave had been inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 2022.
In addition to being one of the first American women in space, Cleave helped develop and lead projects to gather critical information about the effects of climate change.
Always fascinated by airplanes, Cleave said in a March interview with The Capital that she started flying lessons as a 14-year-old, which she funded with her babysitting money.
Although Cleave had a strong interest in aviation, she was too short to be a flight attendant at 5-foot-2 at the time. Instead, she applied to veterinarian school at Cornell University but was not accepted.
“They used to discriminate based on gender at all the professional schools – vet school, law school, medical school. When Title IX went through, they had to stop that,” Cleave said in March. “It made a huge difference.”
She was accepted to Colorado State University’s pre-vet program, but when it came time to apply for vet school, she ran into the same roadblock; the programs didn’t accept women. She switched her focus to botany.
After Cleave obtained her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences at Colorado State and her master’s degree from Utah State University, the school’s dean of the College of Engineering asked her to consider a doctorate in engineering. With Title IX law, there was a new world of options for Cleave to explore.
Partway through her doctorate, a colleague told her about an advertisement at the local post office. For the first time, NASA was recruiting women, people of color and nonmilitary personnel for the astronaut class of 1978. It was a dream job for Cleave – flying and science together.
NASA representatives told Cleave they wanted her to complete her doctorate first, which she did before joining the next astronaut class in 1980. The decision meant she missed out on joining the country’s first co-ed astronaut class and the chance to become the first American woman in space, a title held by Sally Ride, but she was glad she finished her degree.
On her first mission, flying on NASA’s Space Shuttle Atlantis in 1985, Cleave became the 10th woman to travel into space. On the mission, she served as a flight engineer and helped operate the shuttle’s robotic arm.
Between her two flights, the Challenger disaster in 1986 had occurred, and Cleave went to work on crew equipment issues following the mission. On the second shuttle flight, as she looked down on the Amazon rainforest, she had a realization that she wanted to return to environmental research.
Cleave’s second flight in 1989, STS-30, also on Atlantis, came after NASA had reverted to flying all-male crews for three missions in the wake of the Challenger explosion.
“Looking at the Earth, particularly the Amazon rainforest, the amount of deforestation I could see, just in the five years between my two space flights down there, scared the hell out of me,” Cleave said in March.
In 1991, Cleave moved to Annapolis to be closer to her aging parents, which led her to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, home of the agency’s environmental spacecraft programs.
At Goddard, Cleave managed a project to measure all the phytoplankton in the ocean via spacecraft, developing models to understand carbon dioxide building up in the atmosphere.
Cleave went on to do other work gathering data from space to help scientists better understand climate change. She also briefly worked on redesigning the proposal for the International Space Station, after which she was asked to work at NASA headquarters in Washington.
She retired from NASA in 2007. She was a member of the Annapolis Rowing Club and Anne Arundel County Bird Club, and volunteered with the Anne Arundel County League of Women Voters. She also mentored students through the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.
Baltimore Sun Media journalists Dana Munro and Jay Judge, and CNN Wires Service contributed to this article.