A Future for Our Planet. Requiem for Astronaut Mary Cleave

A woman 99.9% of us have never heard of, has just died. Yet what we owe her is incalculable. You see, NASA Shuttle Mission Specialist Mary Cleave didn’t use her time in orbit staring at the vast and hypnotic majesty of space. She focused her attention on the mess below her.

Namely the human-triggered deterioration of Planet Earth.

Mary served aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis on two missions. The first was in 1985, the second in 1989.

The degradation of the planet she saw in four years was, in her own words, catastrophic. The deforestation of the Amazon rainforest was criminally extensive . And the urban areas over which Atlantis orbited had left a significantly larger stain in the air and on the ground.  

From hundreds of kilometres high, Mary Cleave (whose picture on this page is courtesy of NASA) realized her true calling was not to reach for the stars, but to plant her feet on the earth and help to save it.

Soon after she returned home, she resigned her commission as an astronaut to manage a $45 million NASA-funded project to collect data to further understand global warming on our planet, using satellite sensor technology to measure the distribution of phytoplankton in the ocean. This is marine plant life vital to the environment’s food chain and essential to the production of oxygen.

And so the data gathered from these sensors have unlocked billions of dollars to retard the threshold of irreversibility, a term used by scientists to mark the point of no return. The moment, in other words, when the world is no longer ill, but terminal.

The Pale Blue Dot

I had the good fortune to be in communication with Mary some years ago. A space agency other than NASA was interested in making a film about her. She was humble about her work and achievements but forthright in her convictions. Where we connected on a level not just intellectual was her admiration for astrophysicist Carl Sagan. She contended that the video made using his Pale Blue Dot prose is the only argument that made conservation and sustainability everyone’s responsibility on the planet. It appealed to “both the intellect and the emotions in a way nothing else before it had”. The project of mutual interest to her and I never happened, binned by someone who, absurdly, thought NASA was a competitor.

R.I.P. Mary Louise Cleave. Thank you for turning your attention away from the stars to study our home.

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