Astronomy mourns Mary Mulvanerton, ‘amazing problem-solver’

Mary Mulvanerton, long-time department manager for the Department of Astronomy and associate director of the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science (CCAPS), passed away on March 6 at the age of 64, after an extended illness. She’s being remembered by friends and colleagues as a mentor, advisor, friend and fierce advocate for the work of the department.

 "Mary was a brilliant person and an amazing problem solver,” said Jonathan I. Lunine, the David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences in the College of Arts & Sciences and chair of the astronomy department. “She solved every problem presented to her. And she did it, not by bending or breaking rules and procedures, but by making them work for her. She even had people at NASA asking her for advice on one of their proposal solicitations.”

people in a group smiling
Provided Mulvanerton, in front with plaid skirt, shared in a department celebration circa 2005.

Mulvanerton was an accountant and lawyer in New York City before following her passion for space exploration and coming to Cornell in 2002 to work with Professor Emeritus Steve Squyres (A&S) on the Mars Exploration Rover mission. After that work was complete, she took on the manager posts with the department and CCAPS.

“Mary was simply amazing.  She had the biggest heart of anyone I have known,” said Alexander G. Hayes, the Louis Salvatore ’92 Faculty Leadership Fellow and director of CCAPS (A&S). “She did absolutely everything she possibly could to help others. Whether it was helping a student whose rental car broke down or negotiating contract terms for a billion-dollar spacecraft mission, Mary brought the same level of passion to solving the problem and received  the same level of happiness for having solved it.”

Lunine agreed that Mulvanerton had a deep compassion for others. “Mary would never hesitate to help a student in need. She was a model for us all,” he said.

Hayes knew Mary since the time when she first came to Cornell, while he was still an undergraduate student. They worked together on the Mars Exploration Rover mission. He has since joined the faculty, where he and Mary worked together hand-in-hand at CCAPS. “I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with Mary for over 20 years, and am very proud to have called her my friend,” he said.

Gordon Stacey, professor of astronomy and CCAT project director (A&S), said Mulvanerton was a key player in the room when faculty developed research proposals. Along with alerting them to opportunities, she offered counsel about budgetary items, “stern warnings of approaching deadlines” and wonderful reactions to proposal titles, he said. “I had one titled ‘Star Formation Across Cosmic Time.’ She read it aloud to me and said ‘I love what you people do.’ It made my day.”

Mulvanerton’s advice was also key to one of Stacey’s most recent proposals, to the NASA Pioneers program, to explore planet formation using a spectrometer technology that was developed on a balloon-borne telescope.

“Mary's input and counsel, freely and kindly delivered, was critical to the formation and submission of the program,” Stacey said. He is waiting to hear from NASA about their final decision.

“Mary was an integral part of and absolutely critical to the success of our large-scale proposals,” Hayes said. Mulvanerton was in charge of the science budget for the Comet Astrobiology Exploration and SAmple Return (CAESAR) mission proposal, which was selected as a finalist in NASA’s New Frontiers 4 Mission competition. This required coordination across dozens of institutions and corporations based in multiple continents.

"By the time we submitted the proposal, Mary was a full-fledged member of the mission leadership. Her contribution was as valuable and important as anyone on the science or engineering teams. The entire CAESAR team will miss her dearly.”

person on a bicycle
Provided Mulvanerton competed in many triathlons and bike races.

“Mary was a strong willed, determined human with a heart of gold and an unwavering faith,” said Lynda Sovocool, finance and human resource administrator at CCAPS.  “She was extremely dedicated to her position, and truly loved working in the department and center. It always shocked me how quickly she could go from the soft-spoken kind-hearted individual she was into the hardcore ‘Jersey girl’ who meant business. Her strength and determination carried her far and she is an icon in the building who will be missed greatly.”

Mulvanerton grew up in Old Bridge, N.J., where she developed a love of music she shared by directing the Saint Ambrose Youth Folk Group for 27 years. After moving to Ithaca, she continued to focus on music, as well as her faith, but was also fighting a battle against Crohn’s disease. She took up bicycling and competed in many triathlons and bike races. Mulvanerton also did legal work pro-bono for many non-profit groups in the Ithaca area, friends said. She was profiled in this video by Ithaca High School student Joseph Lunine in 2014.

Mulvanerton shared her love of science with her nieces and nephews, said Trish McLaughlin, her sister. “Mary introduced them all at a young age to the incredible scientists with whom she worked. Two of them, Michael and Patrick, actually worked internships at Cornell during their university breaks and ultimately became engineers.”

two people outside Space Sciences building
Provided Mulvanerton, right, with her nephew, Patrick

Mulvanerton developed a large group of friends here, Stacey said, including himself and his wife, Liz Cameron. “Mary would have small groups of colleagues and friends over to her ‘gingerbread’ house, always outside on the patio next to her garden. Great food, a bit of wine and great conversation,” he said.

“Mary meant so much to so many of us,” Hayes said. “She was a pillar of support for many in the department and center, and she will be missed.”

Services for Mulvanerton were held March 11 in Old Bridge, N.J. and online condolences can be given at Donations may be made to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Mary's honor at

CCAPS and the Department of Astronomy will hold a memorial service for her from 1-4 p.m. on May 15 at McKenzie Creations at the Gathering, 2175 NY-392, Cortland, N.Y. Please RSVP at this site if you can attend that service.

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