Science & Technology

To the Stars We Return: USU Alumna, NASA Astronaut Mary Cleave Dies at Age 76

Trailblazing ecologist, engineer and shuttle astronaut was a champion of Utah State's students.

By Mary-Ann Muffoletto |

USU alumna and NASA shuttle astronaut Mary Cleave, who died Nov. 27 at age 76, is remembered as a pioneering scientist, engineer and astronaut, as well as a champion of USU students. (Photo Credit: NASA)

Utah State University alumna Mary Cleave, a trailblazing veteran of two NASA shuttle spaceflights, died Nov. 27. She was 76.

USU President Elizabeth Cantwell, who met and worked with Cleave at NASA, says she is saddened at the news of her former colleague's passing.

"Mary Cleave was such a force of nature — I know this was often said about her, but it was so true," Cantwell says. "She was impassioned, whip-smart and driven to make great science happen. I will always remember her as one of the guiding lights of my early career."

Cleave was the 10th woman to fly in space. She flew as a mission specialist aboard space shuttle Atlantis mission STS-61B in 1985, and again on Atlantis mission STS-30, in 1989. During the latter mission, Cleave and fellow crew members successfully deployed the Magellan Venus exploration spacecraft, the first planetary probe to be deployed from a space shuttle.

After graduating from Colorado State in 1969, Cleave headed toward Salt Lake City to explore graduate opportunities at the University of Utah and Montana State. While traveling through Cache Valley, she stopped to take a look around USU’s campus. Cleave struck up a conversation with botany professor Herman Wiebe and decided to make Utah State her destination.

Cleave earned a master’s degree in microbial ecology in 1975 and then embarked on a doctoral degree in civil and environmental engineering, which she completed in 1979. While working at USU’s Utah Water Research Laboratory in 1979, a colleague urged her to apply for a position with NASA’s expanding space shuttle program. She did, and by 1980, Cleave became an official NASA astronaut.

Following her shuttle missions, Cleave joined NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where she was project manager for SEAWIFS (Sea-viewing, Wide-Field-of-view-Sensor), an ocean color sensor, which monitored vegetation globally.

In 2000, Cleave served as deputy associate administrator for advanced planning in the Office of Earth Sciences at NASA’s Headquarters in Washington D.C. From August 2005 to February 2007, she was the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, where she guided an array of research programs. Officially retiring from NASA in 2007, Cleave continued to be involved in research projects, including the NASA-funded OPAL (Oxygen Photometry of the Atmospheric Limb) project, a 3U CubeSat mission initiated in 2014, with USU’s Department of Physics and Space Dynamics Laboratory.

Throughout her career, Cleave returned to Utah State to speak with students, including a visit in January 2022. During that visit, Cleave and fellow shuttle astronaut Charles Precourt spoke at a special event commemorating a new USU scholarship provided by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.

“My wife, Susan, and I met Mary at a neighborhood party shortly after we arrived in Logan,” says Jan Sojka, professor and head of USU’s Department of Physics. “Coincidentally, it was the day she learned she’d been selected for NASA’s shuttle astronaut program.”

Through the years, Sojka says, he and Cleave crossed paths during her Utah State visits. He fondly remembers a keynote address Cleave gave at the 2006 American Physical Society Four Corners Region meeting hosted by Utah State in Logan.

“It was an inspiring talk in which Mary spoke of NASA’s unique mission and the importance of the next generation of space scientists,” Sojka says. “She was a champion of USU’s students and provided enthusiastic encouragement for their efforts.”

Read more about Cleave’s USU experience and her NASA achievements.

During her NASA career, Mary Cleave visited USU, including serving as keynote speaker for a 2006 physics conference, in which she encouraged students to pursue STEM study and careers. (Photo Credit: USU/M. Muffoletto)


Mary-Ann Muffoletto
Public Relations Specialist
College of Science


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