Space Cadet

When Mary Cleave was still in diapers, a bunch of fly-boys conquered outer space. And Mary, now a sanitary engineer, is going to help colonize it.

A psychohistory of Mary Cleave would begin at the age of two, on the potty, where her mother taught her to read. From that time on, Mary always associated toilet training with higher education, eventually earning a doctorate in the field of sanitary engineering. Her mother was a high school biology teacher in Long Island, the third generation of a line of naturalists; her father was a trumpet player and conductor. For extra income the Cleaves operated a summer camp on Lake Champlain, in the cool Adirondacks. Mary, the second of three daughters, was the counselor in charge of the waterfront. It was there—confronted with the approaching death of that once limpid and thriving body of water, now strangled in sewage and the volatile wastes of industrial society—that Mary committed herself to regenerating the beauty of the natural world.

That is one motif in Mary’s life. Another is flying. By the age of ten she had assembled nearly every model airplane in the Revell line. She remembers an Armed Forces Day when her parents took her to an Air Force base, where she could clamber through the actual jets on display. We can picture Mary then as an undergrown tomboy with a crooked smile and gray-green eyes that are still twice as sharp as normal—great pilot’s eyes. “Boy, I’d like to fly one of these babies!” she exclaimed, and an airman stationed there assured her, “You’ll never fly one of these, young lady.” He was doing her a favor. Women didn’t fly jet airplanes: it was a simple truth. But somewhere in Mary’s mind, as she looked at the jet, a seed was planted, and part of her would never sleep until she saw it flower.

When the manned space age began in 1961 with Yuri Gagarin streaking over the atmosphere singing, “I am eagle! I am eagle!” Mary was fourteen and already in the air. “She learned to fly before she learned to drive,” her mother remembers. “I would take her to the airport in the car, and then she would take me for a ride in the airplane.” In her love for flying, Mary was no different from the men who formed the early nucleus of the astronaut corps, but unlike those men, for whom space travel was new, Mary and the people of her generation would view it as a fact of life. By the time Mary would be old enough to join the astronaut corps, the first great age of space exploration would be over. The people of her generation would not be expected to conquer space, only to civilize it. That was fine with them; they grew up wanting to do exactly that.

Mary’s standard equipment in the cockpit was a pair of pillows, one behind her back so she could reach the pedals and one on the seat so she could see over the instrument panel. “It was not a sight to inspire confidence in my passengers,” Mary admits. She might have dreamed of becoming a commercial pilot if she had been a man, but instead she decided to become a stewardess. She would dangle from the top of a door in ski boots, urging her body to grow, but it stopped at five feet one and a half inches, two and a half inches short of the airlines’ minimum. If it wasn’t the sex it was the size.

Her imagination grew fat on science fiction and weekly doses of Star Trek. In times of stress or whenever she craved solace, she would sink into science fiction and simply vanish from society. Out of the mountain of pulpy paperbacks she consumed, one would plant another seed in her mind—a novel by Robert Heinlein titled Space Cadet, about a new recruit in the space academy. That was one book she never forgot.

By the time she was eighteen Mary was desperate for travel, so she decided to go to school in Colorado, despite her father’s dictum that civilization stopped at the western border of Pennsylvania. She went to Colorado State University to become a veterinarian, but after two years she realized she could never be a large-animal vet: her arms were too short. She switched her major, planning to become a biology teacher like her mother, but in the year she spent practice-teaching in Denver she seemed to spend most of her time patrolling the rest rooms. When she left Colorado State, Mary got a job on a “floating campus,” tutoring college kids in biology as the ship tramped from port to port. Wherever she went, she took samples of the water. The memory of Lake Champlain never left her; she saw it again and again in all the degraded waters of the world.

In 1971 she decided to go back to school, to Utah State University. She specialized in phycology, which is the study of algae, and worked in the Utah Water Research Laboratory there. Mary soon learned that once you joined the league of science, you left behind the world of common understanding. If she went to a party and told people she was a phycologist, they assumed she had a lisp. “Right away they started telling me about their nervous breakdowns.”

Most of the guys in the lab were engineers, and they persuaded her that if she was really serious about cleaning up the environment, she would have to get a doctorate in either civil or environmental engineering. Mary went for both. She fulfilled her compact with Lake Champlain and became a sanitary engineer. The day in 1979 that she finished defending her dissertation, becoming the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in engineering at Utah State, she prepared herself a bubble bath and spent the next two days rereading Frank Herbert’s Dune trilogy, which is about space and ecology. The stories are set on the desert planet of Arrakis, where water is so scarce that people have to recycle the moisture and waster of their own bodies. As Mary lounged in

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