Astronaut Mary Cleave is seen using a laptop computer to run an experiment on the space shuttle Atlantis during the STS-30 mission. (Image credit: NASA)
Former astronaut Mary Cleave, who launched twice on the space shuttle before becoming the first woman to head NASA’s science division, has died at the age of 76.
Cleave’s death on Monday (Nov. 27) was confirmed by NASA’s outgoing associate administrator Bob Cabana, who was also a space shuttle astronaut.
“I’m sad we’ve lost trail blazer Dr. Mary Cleave,” said 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.”
A scientist with training in civil and environmental engineering, as well as biological sciences and microbial ecology, Cleave was a member of NASA’s ninth group of astronauts selected in 1980. She became the 10th woman to fly into space on the first of her two missions, logging a total of 10 days and 22 hours in Earth orbit.
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NASA portrait of STS-61B mission specialist Mary Cleave. (Image credit: NASA)
Cleave’s first flight was a mission specialist on the second launch of the space shuttle Atlantis on Nov. 27, 1985. As a member of the STS-61B crew, she helped film the deployment of three communications satellites and took control of the orbiter’s robotic arm to assist her spacewalking crewmates test techniques for constructing structures in orbit.
“They couldn’t fit me in a spacesuit because I was too small,” said Cleave in a 2002 NASA oral history interview. “So I was a flight engineer on that flight, and I flew the arm. That was, for me, a real disappointment when I found out I couldn’t go [out on an] EVA [extravehicular activity], but I was happy with how it came out.”
STS-61B was the first mission to use the robotic arm to move astronauts around as if they were on a cherrypicker, but in space.
“It really worked,” said Cleave. “I had to train really carefully because there are failure modes in the arm where it can start just moving … really rapidly, so I had to be very careful to know exactly where it was at all times and where it should be going, so if I had to throw on the brakes, I didn’t squash these guys and get them wedged in between the arm and the structure.”
“That was the hardest part of that whole thing, because there were definitely safety aspects of it that I had to be really, really careful of, because I did not want to go back to either Jerry [Ross] or Woody [Spring’s] wife and say, “Sorry, I squashed your hubby.” That was not something I wanted to do,” she said with a laugh.