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Center Snapshot: Mary Gainer
Mary Gainer, snapshot Image above: Mary Gainer's work in documenting the history at NASA Langley has drawn attention from other centers and NASA headquarters. Photo credit: NASA/Sean Smith

By: Denise Lineberry

As Mary Gainer works to preserve Langley's history, she finds herself going back to the basics among a workforce that tends to focus on the future.

As Langley's historic preservation officer, one aspect of Gainer's job is to document the center’s history. That history includes the people, the land, the buildings and everything in-between.

There is nothing basic about the task, considering NASA Langley originated as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in 1917 and a portion of its land was home to George Wythe, signer of the Declaration of Independence, in the 18th century.

Gainer manages to keep up with the "aggressive demolition" that accompanies Langley's New Town Project, a 15-year multi-building, repair-by-replacement upgrade.

She personally visits each building prior to demolition and collects documents, photos and artifacts. Gainer also interviews employees who occupied the building and documents their experiences, all while complying with requirements from the Virginia State Historic Preservation Office and the Advisory Council.

She recently coordinated with NASA headquarters on an agreement with the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum for a permanent display of a full fan blade hub of Langley's historic Full-Scale Tunnel. Another display of the Full Scale's blades is being coordinated for the New Town Phase II building.

Since coming to Langley in 1998, she estimates that, with the help of Caroline Diehl and others in the Environmental Management Branch, approximately 100 buildings and historic sites and the artifacts that lie within have been preserved physically or virtually.

Gainer has led a team at Langley through the development and growth of a publically available cultural resources website that captures all of the center's history. The online wealth of information impressed NASA’s headquarters. Gainer was asked to lead the expansion of the website to the rest of NASA’s centers.

NASA’s Cultural Resources (CRGIS) website:

One of her favorite things about the job is having the opportunity to work with student interns who have been assigned to research projects and provided cultural resources support.

"It has been satisfying to watch them explore new ideas and take part in the overall efforts," Gainer said.

The students' efforts have helped to expand the reach of Langley's history.

"In addition to interns working here in the office, they have presented at local schools and have supported teacher training programs through the Virginia Space Grant Consortium," Gainer said. "That work with teachers has opened doors to transferring excess models and equipment to schools."

Other educational doors to the past have been opened by Gainer's quest to explore the "North 40" of the center, an undeveloped area of NASA Langley, beyond the Gantry and alongside marshlands.

Gainer and Diehl led two sessions of an archaeological field school at the Chesterville Plantation, the site of Wythe's former home. More than 80 volunteers, including Langley employees and their children, dug and sifted through dirt in search of artifacts that will help piece together a more accurate map of the plantation.

She looks forward to sharing the field school results with the rest of the center and likes to think beyond Langley’s gates.

Before she retires, Gainer would like to witness the installation of two state highway historic markers approved by the Virginia State Historic Preservation Office. "We also have a pamphlet near completion that describes our center’s historic significance, and a smaller handout is being designed that will highlight some of the little-known facts that are interesting tidbits," she said.

Gainer was born in Maryland, moved to West Virginia and raised her three sons in rural South Georgia. "I have always loved the bogs of West Virginia, and so I feel right at home living and working near marshes," she said.

She considers herself a "farmer at heart" and has spent a good portion of her life surrounded by agriculture. She has a large garden and sells at the Matthews County Farmers Market during the summer. She has worked with landscape design and installation, and she has managed a wholesale nursery and a small farm.

"These experiences have exposed me to many of the issues that I deal with when reviewing projects to ensure compliance with environmental regulations," Gainer said.

While attending Valdosta State in Georgia, she studied biology and geography. Later, she was a part of a team that traveled to the Andes in Venezuela for research on contributing factors of lead poisoning in children.

Her deep, personal interest in history has led her to the near-completion of a book on the early history of her own family.

Her work is her passion.

"I am happiest when busy and challenged," Gainer said.

More than six decades of Langley history ... busy, check.

Finding innovative ways to present that history ... challenged, check.

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