(March 29, 2024) By the time astronaut Mary Cleave moved to Maryland in 1991 to work at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, she had already flown on two Atlantis Space Shuttle missions. In those, she orbited the Earth 172 times, traveling 3.94 million miles. 

An astronaut since 1980, she was the tenth woman to fly in space and the first woman to fly after the catastrophic Challenger accident. Later, Cleave was a capsule communicator for five additional shuttle expeditions, including a flight on which another pioneering woman astronaut, Sally Ride, was on board.

Mary Cleave died unexpectedly at age 76 last November, leaving friends and colleagues to look back on her career and contributions to the space industry.

Building an Infinite Future 

Cleave graduated from Great Neck North High School (NY) in 1965. Always fascinated by flight, she earned a pilot’s license before her driver’s license. She followed her passion for science and the environment by earning a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences in 1969 from Colorado State University, a master’s degree in microbial ecology in 1975 from Utah State University, and a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering in 1979 from Utah State University. 

Cleave worked at the Utah Water Research Laboratory and the Ecology Center at Utah State University in projects that included the effects of increased salinity on freshwater phytoplankton productivity.

Flying into Space

When NASA Johnson Space Center hired her to train as an astronaut in 1980, Cleave was able to combine her love of flying with her passion for the environment. In fact, it is said that when she looked at Earth from space, it only escalated her interest in finding ways to protect our planet from the impact of modern human life.

Following the Atlantis missions, Cleave’s missions at Goddard Space Flight Center focused on monitoring coastal water quality, including red tides, clarity, and sedimentation in coastal and estuarine waters, all from Earth-observing satellites.

Mary Cleave floating aboard the Atlantis conducting experiments 1989

Mary Cleave, shown in 1989, works aboard Atlantis for NASA’s STS-30 mission. Credit: NASA

A First at NASA

“When she moved to NASA Headquarters In 1998, Mary became the first woman to lead NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD),” recalls Claire Parkinson. Her responsibilities extended from Earth environmental measurements to spacecraft probing the outer reaches of the Solar System and the universe at large, overseeing a large variety of research programs and satellite missions. “She was a visionary leader who cared immensely about human impacts on the environment and climate,” adds Parkinson.

Former NASA Astronaut Mary Cleave gives the keynote address at EarthFest, addressing the guests on the importance of studying our home planet.

Former NASA Astronaut Mary Cleave gives the keynote address at EarthFest, addressing the guests on the importance of studying our home planet. (May 2008) 

In Retirement, a New Cause to Mentor Young Women in STEM

In retirement, Cleave spent much time mentoring girls about STEM careers, volunteered with a dog rescue group, served on the Annapolis Commission on Aging, and enjoyed an Earth-side view of the Chesapeake Bay from her Annapolis home.  

Among many other local and national honors, Mary Cleave was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 2022. 


Thank you to Claire Parkinson for providing content, technical help and editing.

Mary Cleave, pioneering NASA astronaut, dies at 76 (link) December 3, 2023

Parkinson, Claire, 2023: ‘In Memoriam: Mary Cleave [1947-2023]’, The Earth Observer, November/December 2023, vol. 35, issue 6, pp. 33-34

Mary Celave, about 30 years old, posing in a blue flight suit holding a model of the space shuttle

Astronaut Mary Cleave. Credit: NASA

Colleague and friend Claire Parkinson remembers Mary Cleave

“Mary is hugely missed by many of us in the NASA family and elsewhere, ever mindful of her enthusiastic, inspiring, kind, and thoughtful way of living a full and exciting life and being dedicated to helping others to have the opportunity to do the same.”

Mary Cleave poses on the aft flight deck of space shuttle Atlantis with her STS-30 crewmates: Norm Thagard, Ronald Grabe, David Walker and Mark Lee. (NASA)

A NASA work uniform on a pedestal. It is a red polo shirt with blue and white stripes and belonged to Mary Cleave

Mary Cleave donated a NASA work uniform that she wore in space to the Maryland Women’s Heritage Center, where it is on display. 

twenty one female astronauts gather for a group photo

Twenty-two astronauts and Johnson Space Center’s first female director, Carolyn Huntoon, met in the fall of 2012 to honor the late astronaut Sally Ride and her legacy.

Seated (from left): Carolyn Huntoon, Ellen Baker, Mary Cleave, Rhea Seddon, Anna Fisher, Shannon Lucid, Ellen Ochoa, Sandy Magnus.

Standing (from left): Jeanette Epps, Mary Ellen Weber, Marsha Ivins, Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Bonnie Dunbar, Tammy Jernigan, Cady Coleman, Janet Kavandi, Serena Aunon, Kate Rubins, Stephanie Wilson, Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, Megan McArthur, Karen Nyberg, Lisa Nowak. Source Wiki Commons 

Mary Cleave floating in midair during her STS-61B mission training on board the KC-135 reduced gravity aircraft in 1985. (NASA)

Mary Cleave floating in midair during her STS-61B mission training on board the KC-135 reduced gravity aircraft in 1985. (NASA)