Mary Cliff, the first woman to fly on NASA’s space shuttle after the Challenger disaster, has died at the age of 76.

Mary Cliff, the first woman to fly on NASA’s space shuttle after the Challenger disaster, has died at the age of 76.


Mary Cliff, the NASA astronaut who in 1989 became the first woman to fly on a space shuttle mission after the Challenger disaster, has died at the age of 76, NASA announced on Wednesday.

NASA did not mention the cause of death.

“I am saddened that we have lost astronaut Dr. Mary Cliffe, a shuttle astronaut, veteran of two spaceflights, and the first woman to lead the Science Mission Directorate as associate director,” 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. We will miss her.”

Cliff — who died Monday, according to the statement — was a native of Great Neck, New York. She studied biological sciences at Colorado State University before earning a master’s degree in microbial ecology and a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering from Utah State University.

She told a NASA oral history project in 2002 that she was fascinated by airplanes growing up, and obtained her pilot’s license before her driver’s license. At one point, Cliff said, she wanted to be a flight attendant, but found that at 5 feet 2 inches, she was too short for the role under airline rules at the time.

Cliff noted that affirmative action helped pave the way for her passion, giving her the opportunity to fly supersonic aircraft known as T-38s.

“For me, spaceflight was great, but it was a gravy on top of being able to fly on great planes,” she told NASA.

Cliff said she was working in a research lab and finishing her doctoral studies in Utah when she saw an ad in a local post office indicating that NASA was looking for scientists to join its astronaut team. She applied and was selected in 1980.

On her first mission, flying on NASA’s Space Shuttle Atlantis in 1985, Cliff became the tenth woman to travel in space. On this mission, she served as a flight engineer and helped operate the shuttle’s robotic arm.

“Apparently they assigned women to fly the arm (the Shuttle Remote Maneuvering System (SRMS) or Canadarm) more than men, and the word on the street was because they thought women did it better,” Cliff said in her 2002 NASA interview. Pointing out that she never confirmed this rumor.

Cliff’s second flight in 1989, STS-30, also aboard Atlantis, came after NASA returned to flying all-male crews on three missions in the wake of the Challenger explosion in 1986, which killed all seven crew members on board. Board, including the first. The teacher will be chosen to travel to space.

Cliff has been known to downplay her “firsts” as an astronaut during her time at NASA, saying: “People have tried to point it out, and I’ve told everyone I don’t think anyone should do that.” Special point of this.

“It was just a normal part of it, and I didn’t think it would be a good idea to make something special out of it, because at that point we were really part of the Corps,” she added, noting that she was close to that. Friends with astronaut Judith Resnick, who died on Challenger.

Cliff emphasized that for women in the corps at that time, the focus was always on their careers.

She was also part of a historical first when she worked on NASA’s CapCom – or Capsule Communications System – as Sally Ride became the first woman ever to travel into space on the STS-7 mission in 1983. When Cliff spoke to Ride in orbit this became the first contact A female-to-female alien in the agency’s history. Both Cleave and Ride did acknowledge this accomplishment during their conversation.

“I didn’t even notice it. Here’s me and Sally, and we didn’t even notice it,” Cliff said, though a reporter asked her about the event afterward.

Over the course of its two shuttle missions, Cliff spent more than 10 days in orbit.

NASA and beyond

It was scheduled for another flight after STS-30. But Cliff said she began to change her mind when she was waiting to fly, spending four years on the ground between her first and second missions. During that period she became increasingly interested in environmental issues.

Cliff said she could see the planet changing as she stared at Earth from space. “The air seemed dirtier, fewer trees, more roads, all that stuff,” she told NASA’s oral history project.

“I couldn’t get that excited about what I was doing, because it had nothing to do with (the environment),” she added, referring to her job as an astronaut.

Cliff said she made the difficult decision to move from the Corps and NASA’s Astronaut Center in Houston to take a role at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland in 1991. There, she worked on a project called SeaWiFS, an ocean monitoring sensor that measures the world’s vegetation, she said. NASA agency.

Cliffe eventually moved on to work at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., in 2000, becoming the first woman ever to hold the title of Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate — the top role that oversees the space agency’s research programs. In this role, Cliff “directed a range of scientific research and exploration programs for Earth, space weather, the solar system, and the universe,” according to NASA.

She retired from NASA in 2007, choosing to engage in volunteer work and encouraging young women to join scientific activities, according to her biography on the Maryland state government’s website.

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