Anne-Marie Novo-Gradac

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I am the kind of person who likes to plan for the future. I put a lot of effort into mapping out what should happen next. I am a preeminently practical person. I don’t think anyone would ever describe me as a dreamer.

I spent my first 11 years of life in the mountains of West Virginia. For a young child, it was idyllic. I ran around in the woods—climbing trees, looking for crayfish in streams, and going swimming. In addition to my love for the outdoors, I showed an early aptitude for science, math, and art. This was not surprising given the influence of my parents, a mechanical engineer and an art teacher. When I was 11, my father accepted a job transfer to New Mexico. It took a while for me to make new friends and get used to the desert southwest, but I grew to love New Mexico too.

In 1984, I left home to attend college. The time had come to choose between a major in science or art. I loved both, but decided that science was more likely to produce a steady paycheck. Art got downgraded to a hobby. As I said, I am a planner, not a dreamer.

I completed an undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics from the Ohio State University in 1988. Shortly afterward, I married my high school sweetheart (who had followed me to Ohio), and we moved to Athens, Georgia, where he worked as a groundwater contamination modeler at the Environmental Protection Agency laboratory. While in Athens, I completed a PhD in physics from the University of Georgia.

In 1994, we moved to Annapolis, Maryland, where I had accepted a faculty position at the United States Naval Academy. During my time at the Naval Academy, I conducted research on optical materials and taught a wide variety of physics courses to the Navy midshipmen studying at the Academy. Although I loved teaching, I found the research environment at the Naval Academy limiting. In 2001, I began looking for a different job.

I learned of a position at Goddard Space Flight Center through a friend. I had no idea that NASA hired laser physicists. I never imagined I had a chance of working for NASA! Like many people of my generation, I had grown up watching NASA launches on TV with awe. One of my earliest memories is of the Apollo 11 lunar landing when I was 3 years old. (I can still remember how funny the astronauts looked as they bounced across the moon’s surface.) I never planned to work for NASA, and certainly had never dared to dream it. I got the interview and eventually a phone call offering me a job in the Lasers and Electro-optics Branch at Goddard. I literally skipped down the hallway with joy. I was going to work at NASA!

I had been hired to help design the laser for the Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA) instrument on the MESSENGER mission. Two months after starting work at Goddard, the laser physicist in charge of the team left NASA for a job in industry. I was promoted to team lead for the MLA laser and given full responsibility for delivering space flight hardware. This profoundly changed me from a research physicist to an aerospace design engineer almost overnight. I had to consider issues such as mass, volume, and power consumption. I could no longer work in the vacuum of a laboratory, but had to negotiate detailed interfaces with the other subsystems of the instrument. I never imagined that my dream job would require so much planning. I rose to the challenge and led my team for the next 2 years, delivering the laser for integration into the MLA instrument in July 2003. MESSENGER launched in 2004 and will arrive at Mercury in March 2011. During the voyage, the instrument has been turned on several times, and each time it has operated flawlessly.

From 2003 to 2005, I led a research effort to examine failure modes of space-based lasers and worked to enhance performance and reliability of these systems. Some of the issues my team and I studied were long-term optical damage, contamination, thermal management, radiation tolerance, and reliability of commercial piece parts. In 2005, I took over leadership of the team building the laser for the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA), an instrument on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). LRO is currently orbiting the moon, and the LOLA instrument has produced over 1 billion laser shots on orbit, returning the most detailed topographical data of the moon ever recorded.

During each of these projects at Goddard, I accepted more and more management responsibilities. I spent an increasing amount of time organizing and facilitating the work of other scientists and engineers and less and less time doing the hands-on work myself. I realized that it was my job to make sure other people had the resources to get their jobs done. I no longer had the luxury of being in the lab myself. I was just too darn good at planning!

In 2007, I was offered a position as a program executive in the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. Although this meant giving up the laboratory completely, I saw it as an opportunity for a larger role in facilitating and enabling NASA programs. I work with the science and engineering teams for projects to help ensure mission success. I am responsible for several missions and am the primary point of contact at NASA Headquarters for those teams. I help guide them from proposal, to design, build, launch, operation, and eventually to decommissioning. Last year my responsibilities included another “never dared to dream it” moment as I sat at a console in the Launch Control Room for the launch of one of my missions—the Widefield Infrared Survey Explorer.

I consider it a great privilege to work for NASA. This agency tackles some of the most challenging and ambitious projects humans can imagine. Every one of us plays a part in moving technology forward and achieving a greater understanding of the universe and our home planet. It is our destiny as humans to reach out to the stars. I don’t just dream of the day humans leave the Earth for other worlds… I’m planning for it.

photo of Anne-Marie Novo-Gradac


Anne-Marie Novo-Gradac is a planner—one who puts an extraordinary amount of effort into mapping out what should happen next in life. So perhaps it’s a bit ironic that all planning in the world ultimately landed her in a career that she never dreamed she would achieve. Today, she works at NASA with science and engineering teams to help ensure their success, and serves as the primary point of contact at NASA headquarters for those teams. Her early career, however, took a rather unusual path. She began as an academic physicist, conducting research on optical materials while serving as a faculty member at the US Naval Academy. Shortly after joining NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Dr. Novo-Gradac was the team lead for the laser subsystem of the Mercury Laser Altimeter design team, thus transitioning her into the role of aerospace engineer. Over the next 7 years, she accepted more management responsibilities, and eventually accepted a position at NASA headquarters. Her ability to embrace change and recognize unique opportunities makes her an inspiration to the next generation of women. “I believe my background as a research scientist, design engineer, and team leader enable me to better understand the issues faced by my mission teams. I can see things from all three perspectives,” she said. Dr. Novo-Gradac earned a joint degree in mathematics and physics from Ohio State University, and a PhD in solid state physics from the University of Georgia.