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For release: 11-05-03
Release: 03-196


Mobile, Ala., native takes inspiration from NASA legend to lead space station science

Photo description: Olsen

Payload Operations Director Carrie Olsen’s most prized “award” is a fax that hangs in her office from NASA flight director Gene Kranz. When Olsen was a young engineer in the Payload Operations Control Center at the Marshall Center, Kranz — the legendary flight controller for NASA’s Gemini, Apollo and Spacelab missions — wrote that he was impressed with her team’s work on STS-35 — a Spacelab mission devoted to ultraviolet astronomy. Today, Olsen is still inspired by Kranz and his role in space exploration. Olsen leads the Marshall Center team responsible for planning, scheduling and executing all science activities on the International Space Station.

Photo: Olsen (NASA/Renee Bouchard)


Carrie Olsen's most prized award is a fax that hangs in her office from NASA flight director Gene Kranz — the legendary flight director best known for his role in the heroic rescue of the Apollo 13 spacecraft.

When Olsen was a young engineer in the early 1990s working on a Space Shuttle mission devoted to ultraviolet astronomy, Kranz wrote the note to congratulate the operations team for their impressive work on a difficult mission.

"I remember watching the Moon landings even though I was very young," said Olsen. "By the time I was 12, I decided I wanted to be an astronaut."

And while she's never actually made a trip to space, she's been there in spirit — "flying" with the many space crews she's worked with from her seat in the control center.

Today, as a NASA payload operations director, Olsen leads the team responsible for planning, scheduling and executing all science activities on the International Space Station at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. She communicates daily with the Space Station crew and flight directors at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"The work we do in space for the advancement of science is challenging and, I believe, very important to making life better on Earth," Olsen said. "And, it's a lot of fun. There is a lot of camaraderie among people in the space operations world."

Olsen is currently working with Expedition 8, or the eighth four-to-six-month research mission to the Space Station that launched in mid-October to the orbiting laboratory. In her role as payload operations director, you could liken Olsen to a quarterback leading her team down the field to a touchdown. Olsen must make sure every person is in the right place, all activities are carried out as planned, and answer to the "coach," or flight director, at the Mission Control Center in Houston.

Since her days at McGill-Toolen High School in Mobile, Ala., the former Carrie Dumas knew she wanted to work for NASA in space exploration. The daughter of Joe, a Mobile firefighter and Mary, a stay-at-home mom, Olsen credits her solid family up-bringing for preparing her to take on a strong leading role today.

"My excellent education was one of three very important gifts my parents gave me," Olsen said. "The other two were their love and the belief they instilled in me that there was nothing I couldn't do."

Because of her academic excellence, Olsen was heavily recruited by the head of the aerospace engineering department at Mississippi State University in Starkville. Awarded a scholarship to Mississippi State, Olsen graduated in aerospace engineering in May 1985. And by December 1986, she had earned a master's degree in the field.

Olsen joined the Marshall Center in 1987. At Marshall, she has worked on numerous Space Shuttle/Spacelab Pallet missions — science missions with experiments and telescopes used to conducted research "outside" in the Shuttle's payload bay. Olsen was involved in the overall planning and maneuvering of the Shuttle during these missions.

In 1995, she was assigned to research and development of the X-33 project — a half-scale prototype of a reusable launch vehicle to demonstrate in-flight the technologies needed for a full-size vehicle.

Still, Olsen felt she had some unfinished business: She decided to pursue a doctorate in philosophy in aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. She was chosen for NASA's full-time study program that pays tuition and salary while an employee pursues a degree. In 2001, "Mrs." Olsen became "Dr." Olsen.

Olsen has received numerous special recognition plaques from astronaut crews, several NASA Group Achievement Awards, as well as a Director's Commendation for research from the director of the Marshall Center. Yet she prizes her other "award" — that letter from Kranz — and hopes she is following in his footsteps of technical excellence and leadership, always believing, as Kranz did, that "failure is not an option."

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