Astronaut Mary Cleave, first woman to fly on NASA shuttle after Challenger explosion, dies at 76

NASA Astronaut Mary L. Cleave. April 8, 1985 (Photo credit: NASA)

Astronaut Mary Cleave, the first woman to fly on a NASA shuttle following the devastating 1986 Challenger explosion, died on Monday, NASA announced on its website. She was 76.

A cause of death was not immediately released. 

Cleave, who grew up in Great Neck, New York, was selected as a NASA astronaut in May 1980. 

Five years later, she launched on her first mission, STS-61B, aboard space shuttle Atlantis, becoming the tenth woman to fly in space. 

During 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 news release. 


American engineer and NASA astronaut candidate Mary L Cleave, wearing a light blue flightsuit, and holding model of the space shuttle, in a studio portrait with the American flag in the background at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, January 19

In 1989, she became the first woman to fly following the Challenger tragedy – which claimed the lives of seven astronauts after the shuttle exploded shortly after its launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Jan. 28, 1986. It was Cleave's second mission, which was also on the Atlantis.  

During that four-day flight, the crew "successfully deployed the Magellan Venus exploration spacecraft, the first planetary probe to be deployed from a space shuttle," NASA stated. "In addition, the crew also worked on secondary payloads involving indium crystal growth, electrical storms, and Earth observation studies."


The prime crew of NASA's upcoming STS-30 mission on the Space Shuttle Atlantis, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, March 1989. The insignia of the mission, scheduled for May of the same year, is at the top right. From left to right, they

"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," NASA Associate Administrator Bob Cabana, said 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."

Cleave retired from NASA in Feb. 2007. 


NASA poster paying tribute to women involved in the exploration and study of space, featuring eight portraits inset of America female NASA astronauts (clockwise from top left: Mary L Cleave, Bonnie J Dunbar, Judith A Resnik (1949-1986), Anne Lee Fish

During her time with NASA, she received several awards, 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.