NORTH LOGAN — As a young girl in Southampton Beach on Long Island, N.Y., Mary Cleave learned to fly a small airplane before she even obtained a driver’s license.
But it wasn’t until she was working at the Utah Water Research Laboratory at Utah State University — where she held research psychologist and graduate research engineer assignments — that she realized she wanted to be an astronaut.
It was the mid-1970s, and Cleave had gone to a Logan post office to drop off a letter to her parents, when she spotted a sign next to the FBI’s “Top Ten Most Wanted” poster. It was a NASA poster with the words, “Astronauts Wanted.”
The now 65-year-old Cleave was “very excited” and spent her off time exercising by walking and running through Logan Canyon to get in shape for the NASA interview. It was a departure from her original goal of wanting to work for an environmental firm in Pasadena, Calif.
“You have to be nimble; the world changes; you have to be aware of what opportunities are out there,” Cleave told a group of students during a lunch talk with at USU Calibration Building on Thursday. “You might be sitting here now, but when you get out and graduate, things might be totally different.”
During her visit to USU on Thursday, the former astronaut met privately with officials at the Space Dynamics Laboratory to talk about small satellites on Innovation Campus in North Logan. That was followed by lunch with students from the Society of Women Engineers, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and Get Away Special Team, made up of physics students.
Up on the main campus, she met with professors from the computer science department and the mechanical and aerospace engineering department.
Her visit was capped with a keynote lecture at the Intermountain Graduate Research Symposium at USU.
After completing a master’s of science in microbial ecology in 1975 and a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering four years later — both from USU — she aced an interview with NASA in Houston and was approved to be an astronaut in May 1980, at the age of 33.
She worked in several other posts as an engineer for NASA on the ground before becoming a veteran of two space flights.
Cleave logged a total of 10 days, 22 hours, 2 minutes, 24 seconds in space, orbited Earth 172 times and traveled 3.94 million miles, according to NASA figures. She made two trips into space — one in 1985, the other in 1989. She was one of the first 10 U.S. women to travel to space.
In 2004, she began serving for three years as NASA associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.
A current resident of Annapolis, Md., Cleave now sits on a variety of corporate boards and does some teaching at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore.
Dean Adams, professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of Nevada-Reno, worked with Cleave when she was a graduate student at the USU Water Lab. He flew to Utah just to see Cleave speak Thursday.
“She was phenomenal, very knowledgeable and a hard worker,” Adams said in an interview.
Students said they were impressed with Cleave’s insights.
“It’s just a neat opportunity to meet a USU alumnus with such a record of achievement,” said USU student Ryan Martineau, a member of USU’s Get Away Space Team. “It’s just exciting to be able to ask her questions; I want to know what she thinks of the space program, where space is going, and what her interests are.”
Cleave touched on all of those things during her talk. She showed an old video of her second shuttle flight in 1989, when the Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-30 launched the Magellan, a small shuttle that reached Venus in 1990.
“It blew my mind,” Cleave remembered. “‘Wow, we’re watching this thing, and it’s going to Venus.’”
As Cleave walked students though the video, she provided anecdotes of what it was like to eat and sleep in space and arrive home after a seven-day mission.
One student asked her how she felt about the future of NASA.
“This administration has decided it is best to leave the shuttle industry up to the private sector,” she said. “Whether it works or not ... we’ll find out.”
She also talked about technology and how robotics instruments are replacing some of the scientific and engineering tasks humans once did.
“You’re not going to convince people to give up human space flight from a defense point of view,” Cleave said.
Cleave has talked to high school students about space exploration, but Thursday’s event was one of the few times she has visited a university.
“I wanted to come here because I got a great education here, and these kids do great things in space,” Cleave said. “I want to be supportive of students doing research and them actually doing experiments — particularly in space — but actually any kind of research is good.”