The primary objective of the Mars Observer laser altimeter (MOLA) investigation is to determine globally the topography of Mars at a level suitable for addressing problems in geology and geophysics. Secondary objectives are to characterize the 1064-nm wavelength surface reflectivity of Mars to contribute to analyses of global surface mineralogy and seasonal albedo changes, to assist in addressing problems in atmospheric circulation, and to provide geodetic control and topographic context for the assessment of possible future Mars landing sites. The principal components of MOLA are a diode-pumped, neodymium-doped yttrium aluminum garnet laser transmitter that emits 1064-nm wavelength laser pulses, a 0.5-m-diameter telescope, a silicon avalanche photodiode detector, and a time interval unit with 10-ns resolution. MOLA will provide measurements of the topography of Mars within approximately 160-m footprints and a center-to-center along-track footprint spacing of 300 m along the Mars Observer subspacecraft ground track. The elevation measurements will be quantized with 1.5 m vertical resolution before correction for orbit- and pointing-induced errors. MOLA profiles will be assembled into a global 0.2° × 0.2° grid that will be referenced to Mars' center of mass with an absolute accuracy of approximately 30 m. Other data products will include a global grid of topographic gradients, corrected individual profiles, and a global 0.2° × 0.2° grid of 1064-nm surface reflectivity.