Mary Cleave, an environmental engineer and astronaut, flew on two NASA space shuttle missions and for years led research at the nation’s space agency. She is one of several astronauts with ties to Colorado State and in 2015 accepted the William E. Morgan Alumni Achievement Award, the University’s highest honor for alumni accomplishments. Photo: NASA

By Anne Manning

It was 1961, and 14-year-old Mary Cleave was hellbent on flying. So she scraped together babysitting money for pilot lessons and took her first solo flight at 16 the youngest age allowed by law – then earned her private pilot’s license at just 17.

Her gutsy determination to fly led to a groundbreaking career in space: Cleave became a NASA astronaut and environmental engineer who flew aboard two space shuttle missions. During those missions, in 1985 and 1989, she orbited Earth 172 times and later launched research providing new views of planetary health.

The Space Shuttle Program ran for 30 years, ending in 2011. During that time, Cleave was one of just 49 women, representing 14 percent of the total 355 astronauts and cosmonauts to fly on space shuttle missions. In that way, she helped open a new frontier in career opportunities for women in the nation’s space program and often encourages students with their eyes on the skies.

“Never be afraid to follow your passions,” she advised at a recent “Introduce a Girl to Engineering” event sponsored by the aerospace industry.

These days, expanding opportunities in aerospace are represented in part by Artemis, NASA’s plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 as a precursor to human missions to Mars. The program is named for the twin sister of Apollo, a nod to earlier lunar missions and to the space agency’s commitment to put a woman on the moon. The program “will land the first woman and the next man on the moon in the next five years,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine recently vowed.

The flight plan wasn’t so clear for Cleave. When she finished high school in 1965 near New York City, there were two ways a woman could work in aviation, Cleave said. She could be a military nurse or a flight attendant. In fact, Cleave tried the latter route just after she graduated from Colorado State University in 1969 with a degree in biological science. She applied to be an airline stewardess with Pan Am but was rejected because, at 5 feet 2 inches, she was too short.

A decade later, NASA selected Cleave as an astronaut. What changed?

In that time, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 was signed into law, flinging open new doors for women and girls. Cleave earned a master’s degree in microbial ecology and a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering from Utah State University. She was working in a university research lab in 1980 when she spotted a notice at the post office in Logan, Utah, seeking applicants for science and engineering jobs at NASA.

Cleave shrugged. Until she read that training included flight time in Northrop T-38 Talon supersonic jets. “I went, ‘Oh, man, I’m finally gonna get myself into a fabulous airplane,’” she recalled.

She was soon accepted into the Space Shuttle Program, then in its first year, and spent her career at NASA as an astronaut and researcher, rising to the role of associate administrator for science before retiring in 2007. For her work, Cleave received the NASA Space Flight Medal and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal.

Cleave logged nearly 11 days and 3.94 million miles in space during her two flights on the Atlantis shuttle. On her first flight, she ran a robotic arm during a construction experiment that influenced the design of the International Space Station. Her second mission was notable for deploying the Magellan spacecraft, the first planetary probe launched by shuttle; it arrived at Venus the next year and mapped about 95 percent of that planet’s surface.

As an environmental engineer, Cleave was awed by what she saw from orbit, including the sharp ecological boundaries between protected and unprotected lands and the effects of deforestation across the vast Amazon. Those impressions inspired her scientific research during another 18 years with NASA.

Among other responsibilities, Cleave managed a global chlorophyll-mapping project called SeaWiFS. The project used data gathered by spacecraft to monitor the full scope of Earth’s vegetation, including ocean phytoplankton; the work was critical to development of climate models that inform how Earth’s carbon dioxide levels are increasing a point of acute concern for Cleave. “What’s going on with climate change is so outrageous,” she said. “We’re talking about the life-support system of our planet, guys.”

Understanding the role of science in finding solutions, Cleave, who lives in Annapolis, Maryland, now spends much of her time inspiring students to pursue STEM careers. She has been instrumental in connecting CSU students to scholarship opportunities through the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation and Association of Space Explorers.

“Keep an open mind,” she has advised CSU students, “because when you have an open mind, you run into stuff that you wouldn’t normally consider. And take advantage of opportunities that position yourself to do what you love.”