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A Maryland Woman Who Soars! Mary L. Cleave – Astronaut

Author: Jill Moss Greenberg 6 June 2012 No Comment

Many of her neighbors in Anne Arundel County aren’t aware that Mary Cleave is an American heroine — she is an astronaut! Dr. Cleave was interested in flying since she was a girl but many obstacles and biases made that look unlikely in the beginning.

Mary and her two sisters, Trudy and Bobbie, were all very active. Mary was athletic and played field hockey, lacrosse, volleyball (until she was told she was too short), and basketball (until she was told she was too short). She was also a cheerleader.

She dreamed about flying and her mother drove her to the local airport so she could take flying lessons. Mary received her pilot’s license at the age of 14,  but her parents still had to drive her to the airport so she could fly!

Mary applied to become a commercial pilot but was told that women couldn’t become pilots. Still wanting to fly, she applied to become a stewardess (now called flight attendant).  Here, once again, she was told that at 5’2” she was too short!

After college graduation, she earned a master’s degree in Microbial Ecology and a doctorate in Civil and Environmental Engineering. It was in the mid 1970s, when she saw a NASA sign in a post office saying “Astronauts Wanted,” that she became excited and began to prepare for a NASA application and interview.

Mary passed the NASA exams with flying colors! This time her size was not a barrier, instead it was an asset—she was the only astronaut small enough to do narrow repairs, such as fixing the shuttle’s commode when it malfunctioned!  She was selected as an astronaut in May of 1980 and went into space twice during the 1980s.

According to NASA, Dr. Cleave’s technical assignments included: flight software verification in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL); CAPCOM on five Space Shuttle flights; Malfunctions Procedures Book and Crew Equipment Design.

In 1985, her first Space Shuttle flight, where she was a Mission Specialist, was launched at night from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and returned to Edwards Air Force Base in California. Among the crew on this first flight, she was the only civilian and the only non-veteran. Seeing the earth from space reinforced Cleave’s environmental passion. By seeing the entire universe from space, she saw that “This planet is a teeny little place. The atmosphere is a thin, little layer; one event in one place of the planet impacts the entire globe.”

Her second space flight was in 1989. That mission took four days. NASA notes, “The crew successfully deployed the Magellan Venus-exploration spacecraft, the first U.S. planetary science mission launched since 1978, and the first planetary probe to be deployed from the Shuttle. Magellan arrived at Venus in August of 1990 and radar-mapped over 95% of the surface of Venus, providing valuable information.”

In all, Dr. Cleave logged a total of 10 days, 22 hours, 2 minutes and 24 seconds in space.  She orbited the earth 172 times and traveled 3.94 million miles. She continued to serve NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where she worked in the Laboratory for Hydrospheric Processes as the Project Manager for the SeaWiFS project, which monitored the gradations in ocean color, something she had seen from low-Earth orbit in space. This work has provided scientists with one of the best benchmarks to study the ways that Earth responds biologically to a changing environment.

She is now retired from NASA after serving at the national NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, as Deputy Associate Administrator (Advanced Planning) in the Office of Earth Science.  She is one astronaut who is also well-grounded!

Cleave continually shares her expertise and experiences with schools, organizations and corporations. She tells students, “You have to be nimble; the world changes and you have to be aware of what opportunities are out there.”

She generously donated several of her space artifacts, including the shirt she wore in flight and her log book, to the Maryland Women’s Heritage Center (MWHC). They are incorporated into the STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) exhibit currently at the MWHC.

Mary Cleave is an extraordinary role model, providing an inspiring example of perseverance and strength in overcoming stereotypes and barriers to achieve one’s goals. Despite being considered “too short” for certain sports, for becoming a pilot, and for becoming a flight attendant, she pursued her goals and became one of the first women in space, flying higher than she ever dreamed!

Additional posts by Jill Moss Greenberg