From Outer Space to ICC: Mary Cleave on Space, the Environment, and What it Takes to be an Astronaut

January 22, 2019

Georgetown University Astronomical Society (GUAS) – in partnership with the SFS’s Science, Technology, and International Affairs program – hosted retired NASA astronaut Mary Cleave on Jan. 18 as the inaugural speaker in the Heyden Distinguished Lecture Series, named for the longtime head of Georgetown’s astronomy department, Rev. Francis J. Heyden, S.J.

More than 50 students, faculty, and members of the public filled the ICC Auditorium for Cleave’s talk, titled “A Welcoming Atmosphere: Lessons from Outer Space on Women, Leadership, and Planet Earth,” on her nearly 30-year career at NASA, which included two space flights in the 1980s and a stint as the Associate Director of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Sarah Johnson, assistant professor of planetary science, introduced Cleave, calling her an “extraordinary, extraordinary scientist” and highlighting her distinguished academic career at Utah State University before her transition from the world of research to life as an astronaut. Cleave, who told students she originally intended to become a veterinarian, trained as a botanist and environmental engineer before applying to NASA’s astronaut selection program. Cleave said a mentor told her she was “too impatient to be a good scientist” and needed to become an engineer instead.

In an email to the Voice, GUAS president Laura Caron (SFS ’21) wrote that the Society chose Cleave both for her scientific achievement and her successes as a woman in STEM. “We were honored to be able to host her to inaugurate the Heyden Distinguished Lecture series because she is such a prominent leader in her field and a passionate advocate for diversity in the scientific community.”

During her talk, Cleave narrated a video documenting her first spaceflight in 1985, five and a half years after her selection as a civilian astronaut. “I had devoted five years of every single ounce of energy I had getting ready for this flight, and it was over in eight minutes and ten seconds,” Cleave said of the Atlantis shuttle’s journey into orbit.

“I felt like I could spend all day just looking out the window,” Cleave said, while the Atlantis circled the globe at 25 times the speed of sound.

Cleave noted that, in her experience, astronauts do not feel much fear during spaceflight, despite its dangers. “You don’t even consider it,” Cleave said. “You don’t get anxious about it because if you were the kind of person who got anxious about it, you wouldn’t like that job.”

“You have to find something you like to do,” Cleave told a student asking what advice she would give to an aspiring astronaut, “because you’ve got to be good at it.” She said that prospective astronauts are carefully selected for compatibility – you do not want to be stuck in space with people you hate.

Cleave also said that her spaceflights strengthened her belief that humanity needs to pay more attention to environmental concerns here on Earth. Cleave said that when the Atlantis reached its orbit, she expected to look out the window of the shuttle and see the Earth as Apollo program astronauts had described it: “gorgeous.” Instead, she saw the effects of mass deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. “This was 1985,” Cleave said. “I mean, holy crow.”

“In the four years between my two spaceflights,” she continued, “I could see the difference.”

Cleave’s experience as an environmental engineer and her growing concern for the impacts of human-caused climate change led her to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland in 1991, where she again focused on studying the environment and working on environmental spacecraft. “I was really concerned about the rate of change on the planet, and I still am,” Cleave said.

While Cleave could clearly see evidence of deforestation over the course of her two spaceflights, she noted that the military astronauts on her missions “were waxing poetic” about their view of the Earth because they did not share Cleave’s scientific background.

“They could just enjoy it,” Cleave said. “And it is beautiful. As long as you don’t see all the ways we’re screwing it up, it’s beautiful.”

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Karen Davis

Congratulations! You certainly deserve it!