Mary Coan

First and foremost I wish to thank my parents. They are the inspiration that has allowed me to fulfill my life goals one after the other. Without them I would not be where I am today nor would I have had the experiences I have been blessed with over the last 29 years. Words will never describe everything you have done for our family.

Treat those around you as you would like to be treated.

As the second child of four I learned early on that I needed to know how to communicate with those older and younger than I to be successful in my endeavors and that I had to prioritize everything or I would accomplish nothing. With these two lessons, I was able to set goals for myself starting in 5th grade. On a 5th grade science class trip to the Challenger Learning Center in Rochester, NY, I was told that I was in the Space Shuttle and as an Engineer it was my job to deploy the satellite out into space for NASA by listening to directions from Ground Control. After I successfully launched the satellite into space we landed back on Earth. At that moment, I was now in Ground Control and had to ensure the Astronauts launched the next satellite successfully. After the science trip, NASA’s Astronaut Pamela Melroy visited my elementary school wearing the Astronaut blue suit and talked to us about her experiences in Space on the Space Shuttle. She explained to us how she used to go to our elementary school, sat in the exact same classroom as us and how the education she received as a child made her into the woman she is today. I thought to myself, “I could be her when I grow up” and told my parents the minute they arrived home from work. From that day forth I have never wavered and my parents (and even my sisters) have helped me to shape my life around that goal.

Shoot for the Moon. Even if you miss you will land among the stars.

As time went on I realized that being an Astronaut wasn’t going to be an easy path and that many people would be competing against me. Which meant I had to be smart and have the education to prove it. During high school, I learned many lessons about money, life and goals. First, if you wish to obtain something you must work to obtain it. Otherwise you will not understand the true worth of it. Second, earning minimum wage is not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Third, setting a goal is not enough to achieve the goal, you must work towards smaller goals to achieve the larger goal. I discovered that Chemistry and Math were passions of mine and that I could combine them into a career called Chemical Engineering. After high school I was informed that I would have to pay my own way through college as my parents had done everything in their power to ensure my siblings and I had the best education possible up until college. I went on to Community College where I studied engineering and worked a full time job to pay for my books and my classes. After two years, I transferred to a university where I graduated Cum Laude with my Bachelors of Science Degree in Chemical Engineering while working two jobs, one as a restaurant night manager and one as an Organic Chemistry Lab Assistant. Many times during my undergraduate career I thought “I am going to fail this class, this is way too hard but I really want to be an Astronaut, how do people do this when they have kids, and am I going to be able to do this.” I always had a positive support system of friends and family. They always helped me to remember the end goal and how awesome working for NASA work be let alone being an astronaut.

Life is not easy and you deserve nothing. If you want it, earn it.

My undergraduate career was far from easy but I understood that my goal to become an Astronaut was going to be a difficult path. At this point, I also realized the likelihood of becoming an Astronaut was extremely low, so I made back up life goals. My second life goal was to work for NASA and to help Astronaut explore the Universe. My third was to work for IBM if I could not obtain a job at NASA. With these goals in mind I set off to earn my PhD in Chemical Engineering with a thesis in Microelectronics. This part of my life was even harder than the last. I knew that the only way to work for NASA was to Intern/Co-Op for them. I went to my graduate program and inquired about PhD Internship opportunities. I was told that only undergraduates could use the service. That didn’t stop me. My life goal was to be an astronaut and my second was to work for NASA. I was going to find another way. I searched the internet for every NASA center’s Co-Op Program office and Point of Contact. Within 1 week I sent out Cover Letters and my resume to every Center. After being rejected numerous times I was told that I had an interview scheduled with a group at NASA John F Kennedy Space Center. I was beyond excited. I prepared for the interview and aced it. I had to report to NASA within 4 weeks. This meant that I had to stop my research for 4 months. I was informed by my professor at the time that going to work for NASA and stopping my research was a horrible decision and that I would need to find a new professor and restart all of my research. This was the first time I had to make a huge life choice. I chose to jump and began working for NASA KSC as a Co-Op. I completed one of my life goals by the age of 23 which was to work for NASA. After several rotations of working for NASA and completing my PhD research, I graduated with my PhD in Chemical Engineering and began working full time for NASA Kennedy Space Center. I completed a second life goal, being the first in my family to earn a PhD. Sometimes in this life, one must make tough decisions that will affect them for the rest of their life without knowing all of the information and without knowing if they will succeed.

Fortune Favors the Brave. Be brave.

Today, I work on a project called the Resource Prospector (RP) which is slated for flight in 2020 to go to the Moon and prospect for ice and other resources that could be found underneath the top layer of Regolith. We are interested in understanding what resources can be found on the Moon and planets, such as Mars, to determine if In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) is possible. In other words, we would like to know if we can make fuel for further exploration or Oxygen for Astronauts. I have not worked a day in my life since I started full time at NASA. My passion for human and non-human space exploration has allowed me to know that I am helping the world achieve an extremely hard task. During my time working full-time for NASA I have mentored three interns from various states around the country with varying interests and passions. All of them have kept in touch with me over the months since they have left the internship program. I wish the best of luck to them and I hope they have been successful in all of their endeavors.

Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.

I was raised to help those in need without judgment or preconceived notations. I have a strong belief that it is not only my job but my duty to help those around me without judgment and without expecting anything in return. It is because of this belief that I continue to be a mentor for and NASA Interns and Co-Ops. I have also chosen to take part in FIRST Lego League and NASA’s Robotic Competition as a judge and a Chemical Engineer Subject Matter Expert to inspire the next generation. Whenever I return home during the school year, I give presentations to grade school and middle school students to inspire them to love not only STEM programs but to love whatever career they plan on going into. One does not always help by giving finically, sometimes all a person needs is recognition and a smile.

Never Forget to Smile. We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.

photo of Mary Coan


Dr. Mary Coan grew up as the middle child surrounded by three sisters. Communication and prioritization was key to keep a peaceful home. From an early age, Dr. Coan set her goals high and set out to work for NASA as an astronaut. Many children would change their minds but Dr. Coan never did. She held true to her 5th grade self and never let go. She worked her way through her undergraduate career while still managing to graduate Cum Laude with a Bachelors of Science in Chemical Engineering. She continued to work her way to her PhD career where she began her NASA career as a co-op at John F. Kennedy Space Center. After graduating with her PhD in chemical engineering, she began working full time for NASA on the Resource Prospector (RP) which was known only as Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction (RESOLVE) at the time. Just recently, Dr. Coan has earned the opportunity to work for NASA’s Headquarters Office in Washington D.C. as a detailee in the Office of the Chief Engineer where she is slated to learn about NASA’s Program/Project Planning and Control policies and guidance.