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Don L. Olson, NASA aerospace engineer and oenophile, dies

Don L. Olson worked on the Gemini, Mercury, Apollo and Skylab programs and missions.
Don L. Olson worked on the Gemini, Mercury, Apollo and Skylab programs and missions.

Don L. Olson, a retired NASA mechanical engineer whose career began in the early 1960s, died of cancer Sunday at his Columbia home. He was 84.

Don LeRoy Olson , son of Alfred Clyde Olson, a Navy mechanic at the Alameda Naval Air station, and his wife, Rebecca LuEllen Olson, a retail sales associate, was born in Rockford, Illinois, and raised in Alameda, California, where he graduated from Alameda High School.

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“His mother named him Don and not Donald because she knew people would call him Don anyway,” said a daughter, Kristen L-O Culver of Alexandria, Virginia.

Mr. Olson studied forestry at the University of California at Berkeley on an Army ROTC scholarship before receiving a commission in 1959 in Army intelligence.

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During the Cold War, he specialized in the collection of photographic intelligence as both a military officer and as a civilian contractor until joining NASA in the early 1960s.

As a NASA aerospace engineer in the early days of manned space flight, he worked on the Gemini, Mercury, Apollo and Skylab programs and missions, at space centers in Houston, Mississippi and Maryland.

Mr. Olson continued to support missions to put satellites into space as a civilian contractor for Omitron in Columbia until his retirement in 1999.

An oenophile, he had served as president of the Baltimore-Washington Wine Society, was a member of the Columbia Revelers and served as an occasional wine judge at the Maryland State Fair.

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The onetime Dallas Cowboys fan became an ardent fan of soccer and of Manchester United in particular.

“After living abroad, fighting forest fires, flying gliders, and hanging with astronauts, Don was never short of riveting stories of a life extremely well-lived,” according to a biographical profile submitted by his family.

A memorial gathering and reception will be held at 2 p.m. at The Kings Contrivance Restaurant at 10150 Shaker Drive in Columbia.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Olson is survived by his wife of 55 years, the former Diane Leith, a homemaker; another daughter, Susan Rebecca Olson of Columbia; a sister, Betty Anderson of Alameda, California; and four grandchildren.

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