When most of us look up at the night sky, we see a vast, black expanse dotted with countless lights, some of them moving. When Mary Kicza looks up, she also sees her federal program.
At least, she sees the realm in which her program operates. As the assistant administrator for Satellite and Information Services at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Kicza oversees quite a few assets up in space.
“I was interested in space before high school. It guided my high school and college courses,” Kicza said.
Kicza is no generic federal manager with a political science degree. She’s both a manager and a scientist. Kicza has an undergraduate degree in electrical and electronics engineering, and an MBA. She heads the operational and acquisition functions for a fleet of earth observation satellites. And, as an assistant administrator level leader, she has a seat on the NOAA Executive Council, the main governance component of the agency. Her bureau in NOAA is called the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service, or NESDIS.
She heads a team of 100 civil servants, mostly scientists who work with academia to develop algorithms for interpreting the data generated by the instruments aboard satellites.
But Kicza also has a deep background in research, math and orbital and computer science. This comes from both her education and her 30-year federal experience.
In her current job, Kicza basically ensures that data coming from a set of polar orbiting satellites is accurate and universally available. Not all of the “birds” gathering weather and environmental data belong to the United States. NOAA cooperates with a European consortium of operators called EUMESTAT. One challenge is that instruments made in different countries send consistent information down.
She describes “robust forums where we work together to help characterize instruments, see how they are performing, and cross-calibrate among satellites to make sure the data matches up.” It’s a constant process of comparing data feeds with on-ground (they call it in-situ) observations and adjusting the instruments for consistency.
“We have a very busy team,” Kicza said. “Mission critical design is never finished.” With the recent launch of a new EUMESTAT polar satellite, “we’ll double the clarity of our imagery with more frequent observations.” Note that the polar observing satellites fly at 500 to 520 miles above the earth, and they cross the equator at the same time every day. By contrast, geosynchronous satellites, used mainly for communications, fly at 22,000 miles high. Kicza explains, because the higher satellites can “see” so much more at a time, they are able to spot fast-developing weather patterns that occur when a polar satellite may be out of range.
Kicza spent many years at NASA, and the knowledge gained there helps her in the NOAA work. “NASA is often a partner in developing instruments and satellites. They launch them and then hand them over to us for the long term.” By the same token, NOAA helps NASA process the data the space agency gets from its own research satellites, she added.
After college, Kicza worked for the Air Force testing communication systems components in ground stations. Then it was off to the Kennedy Space Flight Center where she worked on computer systems controlling now-historic rockets like the Atlas Centaur and one that never made it to space, the Shuttle Centaur. “These were real-time data systems, ‘listening’ to vehicles as they went through test and then launch. I sent the data to engineers all over the country in the mid-1980s.”
Still later Kicza worked at NASA headquarters, where she dealt with microgravity science, solar exploration, near-earth asteroid rendezvous, and the Cassini and Galileo probes that viewed Saturn and Jupiter respectively. Galileo was deliberately crashed into Jupiter in 2003. She also worked at the Goddard Space Flight Center on signature projects such as the Hubble Space Telescope.
When the Space Shuttle Columbia crashed, Kicza was working as associate deputy administrator of NASA under then-administrator Sean O’Keefe.
She joined NOAA in 2005, in a career studded with awards. Kicza said, “Early on in my career, what motivated me was the challenge of basic exploration. But as I’ve matured, the ability to contribute to the community, to the public good is what moves me now. The best part of it? The people.”
For someone who’s spent so much time mentally in space, Kicza is firmly grounded. “I‘m blessed with a wonderful husband and four kids – one in college, one in high school, one in middle school and one in grade school,” she said, in a home life of band concerts and slumber parties.
Kicza marveled at the advances in knowledge of the earth and its weather processes that satellites have yielded, musing, “Think of what our kids will see in 50 years.”