Computer science alumnus is taking a leading role in NASA’s effort to reach Mars
Mike Bolger stepped out of his Oxford, Ohio, home, said goodbye to his family and friends, pulled onto the road, and began driving toward Mars.
There have been a couple of stops along the way.
It was 1982, and Bolger had just finished high school. He was interested in computer science, and he took a hard look at Ohio State. The in-state school was closer, but he felt IU was simply a better fit for him.
Bloomington it was.
“When I was 11 years old, I wanted to do two things,” Bolger says. “I either wanted to work at NASA, or I wanted to be a major league baseball player. It didn’t take long for me to figure out I didn’t have the talent for one of those occupations.”
But during his sophomore year at IU, Bolger had the opportunity to intern with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. Specifically, Bolger would work at the Kennedy Space Center.
“It was February in Bloomington, and it was cold and rainy,” Bolger remembers. “And here they were telling me ‘Come to Cocoa Beach, Florida,’ and it sounded really, really good. Ultimately, I decided I needed to go down there.”
It was the right decision.
Bolger has since spent more than 30 years at NASA and is currently the manager of the Exploration Ground Systems program at the Kennedy Space Center. He is responsible for leading the government and contractor team that is preparing the ground systems, infrastructure, facilities and processes required to support NASA's next-generation space launch systems and spacecraft.
But back in the mid-1980s, his first priority was to finish school. During his final three years at IU, he alternated between the IU Bloomington campus and working at the Kennedy Space Center, and he graduated in 1987 with a degree in computer science and a minor in mathematics.
His first job after graduation saw him working in the shuttle engineering directorate.
“At the time, they didn’t have a position called ‘computer scientist’ or ‘programmer,’ ” Bolger says. “Really, what I liked the most was programming. That’s the thing that drew me to computer science. I really enjoyed that during my time at IU. NASA did work with software, so they categorized me as a computer engineer, which was a brand new categorization. That was a little different than what I really was, but NASA has fairly strict criteria on STEM classes people have to take, and since I had so much computer science and math, I had the right background to get in as an engineer.”
He worked on software for the test and check of the various space shuttle systems, from the main propulsion system to the environmental control and life support system. For each system, engineers would sit in the firing room at the launch control center and test the vehicle’s systems prior to launch using the software. Over time, he was promoted to the team that worked on the ground launch software, such as the countdown software.
He spent eight years in that capacity during a time when NASA was transitioning away from in-house work to contractors. Bolger moved away from hands-on programming and more to an oversight role, and he also managed to earn an M.B.A. from the University of Central Florida. He spent a few years working on a program that was ultimately cancelled, and he filled a role overseeing base operations at the Kennedy Space Center along the way.
Bolger then became the chief information officer at Kennedy, a position that once again called on his skills as a computer scientist. He spent six years in that job—he also spent a few months as the deputy director of the Kennedy Space Center in an interim role—but it's his latest position that will help push NASA farther than it has ever been.
As the manager of the Exploration Ground Systems program, Bolger is tasked with the launch infrastructure modernization and upgrades necessary for what NASA is calling the Artemis mission. Artemis is the agency's next lunar exploration program, one that will use innovative new technologies and systems to explore more of the Moon than ever before. The project will use a powerful new rocket, dubbed the Space Launch System, to send the next man and the first woman to the Moon by 2024.
But you can’t get to the Moon without getting off the ground, and that’s where Bolger and his team come in.
"We had to construct a mobile launcher, which is a launch platform and launch tower, and all of the ground support equipment that we use to service the rocket when it gets here,” Bolger says. “We need to be able to fill it with fuel—we fill it with liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. We do that through the mobile launcher, and my team is responsible for developing it. The same goes for all of the software and for the firing rooms. I’m responsible for building the plans, advocating for the budget, executing the schedule, and ultimately delivering the ground infrastructure we use, and, of course, launching the rocket."
The ultimate destination for Artemis is Mars. One of the goals of the Artemis Moon missions are to prove the technologies needed to travel to the Red Planet, missions that will take up to three years roundtrip. Those Mars missions, however, are years away, and NASA is going to need innovative minds with unique backgrounds to make the Mars dream a reality.
“I’m a bit of a one-off at Kennedy in that almost everyone here my age that are in the leadership positions are engineers,” Bolger says. “When I went to IU, we didn’t have an engineering program. I wouldn’t have gotten into engineering if they had because I wanted to be involved in computer science. But for people who dream like I did of working for NASA, there are a number of paths to follow.
“Get a STEM education. Get involved in computer science or the engineering program. Pursue internships with NASA at the Kennedy Space Center, the John Glenn Research Center in Ohio, the Lyndon Johnson Space Center in Houston. We have 10 field centers, and we hire a lot of people through the NASA internship program. It’s a great opportunity for us to test-drive our prospective hires.”
Thanks to the vast web of contractors employed by NASA, opportunities abound throughout the tech world to work on NASA-related jobs. Bolger has built his career around taking advantage of opportunities as they have come before him, and he hopes others will follow his example.
I feel like I have an opportunity to make a really long-lasting difference for the space center and for NASA, and even for the nation,” Bolger says. “We’re going to continue human exploration beyond this planet with the goal of making humans an interplanetary species. We want to be in more than one place: The Earth, the Moon, and, eventually, Mars. The idea that I can be a part of making all that happen is really rewarding to me.
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