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In Memory of Mary Kaye Olsen

Mars Global Surveyor Program Manager
NASA Headquarters, Washington DC


Mary Kaye died suddenly, at the age of only 37, a couple of weeks before the launch of Mars Global Surveyor. Her name was painted on the gantry and a seat full of flowers was kept for her in the launch viewing area.



mary kaye olsen photo

Who I Am

As the Mars Global Surveyor program manager, I am officially responsible for "program formulation, external advocacy, establishing policy, defining the objectives and requirements, allocating resources and assessing performance of the project." But really, my job is to try to facilitate the work of a superb group of managers, engineers, scientists and technicians at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), who, working with Lockheed Martin Astronautics (LMA) in Denver, Colorado, are building and will operate the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft.

My Career Journey

My background does not readily lend itself to managing space programs. When I was growing up I wanted to be an oceanographer. I took as many math and science courses as my small high school offered to prepare myself for college. But my family has a long history of military service and I felt it was my duty to serve my country also.

I applied to several colleges in Hawaii, Rhode Island and Texas for oceanography programs. Texas A&M was doubly intriguing; I applied for an ROTC scholarship there, as well as to the oceanographic program. I also applied to the U.S. Naval Academy. I was accepted at all of them! The unique opportunity to attend the Academy stood out so I accepted an appointment there. I took a lot of math, science and engineering courses, and graduated in 1981 as an Ensign in the U.S. Navy with a Bachelor of Science degree. I was stationed in Guam, where I forecast typhoons; in Monterey California, where I worked with global climate models; on a deep ocean survey ship, where we did bottom surveys in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (we went through the Panama Canal!!); and in San Diego, where I worked in a field office for the Defense Mapping Agency (DMA, now part of NIMA). While I was stationed in San Diego, I went to night school and got my M.S. degree in Systems Management at USC. When I left active duty in 1988, I moved straight to Washington DC to work for DMA as a civilian.

So, what does all this have to do with NASA and Mars?! Absolutely nothing, directly. The math, science and engineering background, however, was very important.

I applied for a program analyst position at NASA Headquarters in 1991. After a few years analyzing the budget and schedule/cost performance of many different space science programs, I started to get bored. One of my supervisors gave me the opportunity to move into the program management area. I assisted the person who was then managing the Mars Observer mission. After Mars Observer was lost, I moved into the management of several smaller Discovery-class missions: the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous and the Mars Pathfinder mission. When Congress allowed NASA to start the Mars Surveyor Program, I was fortunate enough to be selected to manage the first mission in that series, the Mars Global Surveyor.

Why I Like My Job

The job required a lot of on-the-job training, extra classes and seminars, but boy, is it worth it!! The best part of my job is working closely with the real experts at JPL and LMA. You can learn so much if you just listen and ask questions. And let's face it, working with the team building the next Mars orbiter is about as neat a job as anyone could imagine!

I spend quite a bit of time on travel, to JPL and other sites for project reviews, or participation in study teams. I also am now the acting resource manager for NASA's Office of Space Science, so I am doing two jobs now, which really keeps me busy!

Personal

I'm married to a communications/electrical engineer who works for a consulting company, and we don't have any children. I do have two very spoiled cats, named Bug and Ashburn, and just spent a weekend looking for a horse to buy. I love to go horseback riding, and I've started sailing competitively again this summer (something I did while in college and in the Navy). My husband builds and flies remote-control airplanes. I grew up in upstate New York, but now live in Reston, Virginia; near enough to downtown DC to commute to work every day but far enough in the country that the deer eat my flowers all summer!

I would like to stay with NASA the next several years to see how the "New NASA" shakes out, and see all the new missions on the drawing board actually fly. Once I decide to leave, we will probably move further west in Virginia, so I can have my horse on my own property, and I will probably work for one of the small spacecraft companies in the region.


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