L'Team - Featuring Cathy Olkin

Nov 06, 2019

While a robot may be the one visiting the Trojan asteroids, people are responsible for getting it there. In L’Team we meet some of the people that make the Lucy Mission possible.

Cathy Olkin and her son Jake prepare to observe an occultation where one of Lucy's targets, Orus, will pass in front of a star.

What is your role on the Lucy team?

I am the Deputy Principal Investigator (DPI). The Principal Investigator (Hal Levison) is ultimately in charge of ensuring that the Lucy mission is a success by assembling and leading the scientific, management, and technical teams that handle all aspects of the mission. As DPI I assist Hal on all facets of this large job, often serving as his proxy when he needs to be in two places at the same time.

How did you become the Lucy Deputy Pricipal Investigator?

I have taken a circuitous path to get here. I have a background in Aerospace Engineering and worked at JPL on Navigation in the early 1990s. I did orbit determination for Cassini and other mission concepts at the time. Then I went to graduate school for a PhD in Planetary Astronomy with a thesis on understanding Triton’s atmosphere using stellar occultation observations. I was an observational astronomer for many years making observations using the Hubble Space Telescope, the large telescopes on mountain tops from Chile to Mauna Kea, and using smaller telescopes for occultation observations across the world (from South Africa to the Marshall Islands). In 2004, I had the opportunity to join the New Horizons mission team and this blended my engineering and science background. In 2008, I became interested in a mission to the Trojans. After previous Discovery and New Frontiers proposals, the Lucy mission was selected for flight! Here we are less than 2 years from launch going to explore the Trojan asteroids!

What is your favorite part of the mission?

Everything! I love the synergy (and sometimes tension) between engineering and science. I also love that we are working on something larger than any one of us — the engineering challenges and scientific returns will be a contribution to the advancement of knowledge for humanity.

What is your favorite Lucy team memory so far?

Playing bar trivia with Hal (Levison, Pricipal Investigator), Jess (Thompson, Lead Systems Engineer), Arlin (Bartels, Deputy Project Manager) and others and realizing we are really smart in our respective fields but not very good at general trivia. But it was fun!

What Lucy challenges have you overcome? How have you done this?

We have had some turnover in some leadership positions on the mission. Some that we knew about, like Mike’s retirement, which I think I heard about before I even met Mike! And each time, we have been able to get outstanding people to join the mission and integrate them into the team. I wouldn’t say that I have done this, I would say that it is a team effort.

What’s your favorite ice cream and why?

Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food because, marshmallow, chocolate, fudge, yum! and part of the proceeds goes toward support a Vermont Watershed.