Mary Cleave, first female astronaut to fly after Challenger explosion, dies at 76

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Retired astronaut Mary Cleave, the first woman to crew a spaceflight after the shocking Challenger explosion of 1986, died on Monday, NASA announced. She was 76.

A cause of death was not immediately released. 

Cleave, a scientist with training in civil and environmental engineering, was the first woman to serve as an associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. 

“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. “Mary was a force of nature with a passion for science, exploration, and caring for our home planet. She will be missed.”

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Born in Southampton, New York, in 1947 to Howard and Barbara Cleave, both teachers, Mary Cleave received a Bachelor of Science degree in biological sciences from Colorado State University, Fort Collins, in 1969. She went on to obtain a Master of Science in microbial ecology and a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering at Utah State University, Logan, in 1975 and 1979, respectively.

Cleave was selected as an astronaut in May 1980. 

Five years later, she launched her first NASA mission, STS-61B, aboard the space shuttle Atlantis on Nov. 26, 1985. 

On that mission, the crew deployed communications satellites, conducted two six-hour spacewalks to demonstrate space station construction techniques, operated the Continuous Flow Electrophoresis experiment for McDonnell Douglas and a Getaway Special container for Telesat and tested the Orbiter Experiments Digital Autopilot, NASA said in a statement.

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The crew of STS-30

In 1989, Cleave became the first woman to fly in space after the Challenger tragedy, in which seven astronauts died after the shuttle exploded shortly after its launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Jan. 28, 1986. The mission, STS-30, was her second aboard the shuttle Atlantis. 

Over four days, the Atlantis crew successfully deployed the Magellan Venus exploration spacecraft, the first planetary probe to be deployed from a space shuttle. Magellan arrived at Venus in August 1990 and mapped more than 95% of the planet’s surface, NASA said.

The STS-30 crew also worked on secondary payloads involving indium crystal growth, electrical storms, and Earth observation studies, according to NASA. 

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Mary Cleave as an astronaut candidate

After the mission, Cleave transferred to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in 1991. There, she worked in a laboratory that monitored ocean vegetation globally. 

In 2000, Cleave became deputy associate administrator for advanced planning in the Office of Earth Science at NASA’s Headquarters in Washington, D.C. From 2005 to 2007, she was the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, where she “guided an array of research and scientific exploration programs for planet Earth, space weather, the solar system, and the universe,” NASA said. 

Cleave received numerous awards throughout her career, including two NASA Space Flight medals; two NASA Exceptional Service medals; an American Astronautical Society Flight Achievement Award; a NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal; and NASA Engineer of the Year.

Cleave retired from NASA in February 2007. 

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