Women make their careers in aerospace & defense

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Two decades ago, Sally Ride took off in the Challenger space shuttle to became the first woman astronaut. She inspired many young girls to reach for the stars. Those girls are now women well into their careers, and some of them are responsible for the design, construction and operation of the world's most sophisticated airplanes and space equipment.

According to a May 2002 report by the Aerospace Industries Association (www.aia-aerospace.org), some 91,000 U.S. women have played integral roles in the development and manufacture of aircraft and parts since 1987. Over 19,000 have been involved with guided missiles and space vehicles.

Opportunities for women continue to grow in aerospace and closely related defense industries. Here are the stories of eleven women in aviation, space and defense. They're not pilots, astronauts or sub jockeys themselves, but they're making those jobs possible through their technological involvement, pursuing the careers they dreamed of years ago.

Tracy Elving directs a fighter engine program at Hamilton Sundstrand

Tracy Elving always loved airplanes and technology. It was on her brother's advice, she says, that she decided to try aeronautical engineering.

She graduated from the University of Illinois in 1985 with a BS in aeronautical engineering. Her first job was with Rockwell International (Palmdale, CA) as a hydromechanical test engineer on the B-1 bomber. "We literally put the power and hydraulics on the aircraft," she says. "The bulk of my day was spent climbing in and out of airplanes. We were testing new B-1s, and the pilots we interfaced with taught me how the product worked and how it got used."

In 1987 Elving moved to Northrop Grumman (Palmdale, CA) as project engineer on the B-2 bomber. She moved into technical manufacturing services and eventually was put in charge of an industrial engineering group. Her station was on the shop floor, literally under the wing of the plane.

She went on to lead the compliance organization and the program planning and scheduling department. Then she moved to Northrop's El Segundo, CA site as head of production for a composite rocket and the Joint Strike Fighter. She also found time to earn a certificate in systems engineering from the California Institute of Technology.

In 1999 Elving joined Pratt & Whitney/ United Technologies (East Hartford, CT) as a manufacturing engineering chief. "It was a great job. I got to bring my airframe experience into the engine world," she says. "I was essentially an internal consultant charged with improving our manufacturing operations. We worked very hard to reduce our quality escapes and costs."

In 2001 Elving transferred to Hamilton Sundstrand (Windsor Locks, CT), another part of United Technologies. As director of the Joint Strike Fighter program at Hamilton Engine and Control Systems, she's responsible for nearly 350 people working on the $600 million contract.

The program is still in the development phase. "We're working toward launch of the first Strike Fighter engine," she explains. "Currently our focus is to get the engine to the test phase, but we hope to eventually support the entire program."

Elving completed her executive MBA degree at Boston University this past June. "This industry gives you every opportunity to work with cutting-edge technology," she says. Just as she and her brother thought, the future is in aerospace - and she's right in the middle of it.

Dr Malina Hills directs research and tech programs at Aerospace Corp

The Aerospace Corp (El Segundo, CA), a nonprofit, federally funded organization, is the principal engineering resource for Department of Defense (DOD) space programs. The company provides objective technical analyses and assessments for civil and commercial space programs in the national interest as well as its DOD work. Malina Hills plays an important role at Aerospace Corp in research and technology development.

When Hills enrolled at Yale University (New Haven, CT), she had a general interest in science. She discovered ChE in her first chemistry class. "The thing that was so interesting to me was the way chemical engineering explained the external world," she says. "You could look at the flow of water out of a faucet and explain it with equations. That was amazing."

In 1981 she received her BS in engineering and applied science with an emphasis in ChE, and went on to the California Institute of Technology, where she worked in surface chemistry. "Chemical engineering," she explains, "looks at the macroscopic level of things. In surface chemistry I was identifying the positions of atoms on surfaces, working at the microscopic level."

She completed her PhD in 1987 and went to work at Aerospace. She spent the next seven years in the lab, investigating the contamination of spacecraft surfaces.

"When a craft gets up in space it's at a lower pressure. All its plastic, glue and wires tend to outgas. The molecules they emit collect on optical surfaces and can cause a problem for the sensors. I was trying to figure out how to prevent the molecules from sticking to the surface."

Hills moved on to head up the international space technology department at Aerospace. She and her team analyzed foreign and commercial space capabilities and figured out how they might be integrated into U.S. space systems. The work added policy considerations to technology, and Hills thought it was a logical progression for her education and skills.

Today she's in the engineering and technology group, as principal director of the Aerospace research and program development office. Her chief responsibility is managing the research and technology development program, but she's also involved in work like overseeing briefings for the board of trustees' technical committee, chairing the editorial board of Aerospace's Crosslink magazine and other projects.

Hills notes that her company is proactive in helping women grow within the aerospace and defense industries. She points to the Aerospace Women's Committee, a support group for women from all areas of the organization. "It gives you access to other women in the company and helps you develop leadership skills," she says. "That's been very good for me because it has allowed me to stretch myself."

At JHU APL, Christina Chomel leads a missile flight test team

Christina Chomel dreamed of working at NASA. At the University of Texas she entered the aerospace engineering program, hoping to make her dream a reality.

That happened very quickly, with a co-op at NASA's Johnson Space Center (Houston, TX). She had the opportunity to work in flight control support and engineering for the Space Station, doing everything from space shuttle flight tests to control system analysis.

When she graduated in 1996, she was given a fellowship to the Charles Stark Draper Lab. She was still doing NASA work, this time on the auto-landing program for NASA's X-34 hypersonic test plane. In 1998 she completed an MS in engineering aeronautics and astronautics via distance learning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her work on the X-34 was part of her thesis.

Then she moved on to the position of guns, navigation and control analyst at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (JHU APL, Laurel, MD.) She worked on a missile program for the U.S. Navy, and was promoted to lead systems analyst, and now lead systems engineer, on the missile's flight test program.

She works closely with engineers at the Tucson, AZ operation of Raytheon on the design and construction of the missile. "We provide technical direction when issues arise," she explains. "We basically help the Navy get what they are paying for. We've had two successful flight tests this year, and without our team, we wouldn't have gotten to that point."

Andrea Chavez is an engineering manager at Ball Aerospace

"I was in high school when the space shuttle started its flights," says Andrea Chavez. "Sally Ride had just made her flight as the first woman astronaut and I knew that one day I would want to do something like that." Growing up in Indiana was a plus, because Purdue University had the most astronaut alumni of any college in the country. So Chavez headed there.

"It had to be one of the most traumatic experiences in my life," she says. "I only took one chemistry class and no physics in high school. Purdue accepted me anyway, but I had to begin at the beginning." Hard work pulled her through, and in 1988 she graduated with a BS in aeronautical and astronautical engineering.

Her first job was with the U.S. Navy. She spent a year as a test engineer on programs including the Tomahawk cruise missile at the Naval Ordnance Station at Indian Head, MD. "I learned test philosophy and how to run a test program," Chavez says. "But then NASA was hiring and I jumped ship, so to speak."

Besides directing testing, she had the job of training NASA astronauts on the use of their extra-vehicular activity (EVA) suits. "We covered the cautions and warning systems and showed them how to correct any problems they might encounter." In 1994 she completed an MSChE at the University of Houston.

As time went by, Chavez gave up her dream of reaching the stars. "I was considering getting married and we wanted to have kids. I decided that raising a family and trying to be an astronaut would be too stressful. I saw that in some of the female astronauts I trained."

In 1995 Chavez joined the test engineering organization of Ball Aerospace. She worked on the Chandra observatory program, designed to investigate X-rays from exploded stars and other high-energy regions of the universe.

A couple of years later she was put in charge of a dozen test technicians, then promoted to manager of clean room ops. In 2000 she was asked to manage all of Ball's spacecraft systems engineers, a total of 200 people.

In 2000 Chavez became an engineering manager in Ball's systems integration and test organization. She handles recruitment and staffing for the various programs, and makes sure "everyone has all the tools they need to do their jobs," she says. "That can include training, career mapping and developing expectations."

Although she never made it into space, Chavez thinks the aerospace industry offers ideal careers for women. "Because we are typically producing intricate and complicated systems, the life of a program tends to be longer. Companies can afford to be flexible about an employee's home life," she says.

Margaret Cundiff: systems engineering for defense electronics at BAE Systems

Air Force cadets take a core curriculum of engineering courses at the U.S. Air Force Academy (Colorado Springs, CO). To them, Cadet Margaret Cundiff added a focus on English. She graduated in 1991 with a BS.

In the Air Force, Cundiff worked in the intelligence field, including a number of classified assignments for Air Force and national agencies. "As a user of intelligence systems, I interfaced with developers and systems engineers to help them understand users' requirements and constraints," she says. "It gave me a good basis for later work in the defense contracting industry." She also earned an MS in engineering management from the Florida Institute of Technology (Melbourne, FL).

After nine years Cundiff was ready to try her skills in the private sector. She joined BAE Systems in San Diego early in 2000. "My work there allowed me to interface with a lot of the same organizations, personnel and professional acquaintances I had established in the military. It was a great transition, and I still feel that I'm contributing to national security," she reflects.

She started out as a systems engineer studying future defense electronics systems. "We were actually able to define feature architectures out in the far-reaching future. That was really interesting."

She also served as tech liaison for a BAE Systems subcontractor. "That was a good introduction to the programmatics of software development and software-intensive systems," she remarks.

In 2001 she became program manager for a system still under development. "This particular project is so software-focused that it has forced us to look at different ways to organize our workforce," she says.

Cundiff was loaned to project management from her regular post in the systems engineering organization. It has been a career-broadening experience for her. "I am really enjoying learning about managing software development and its integration into a deliverable system," she says.

This is a good time to be in the defense industry, Cundiff finds. "At BAE Systems there's a concerted effort to put engineers in significant roles within the company. There are many excellent female engineers on my program," she says.

Kathleen Bescher directs software engineering at BAE Systems

Kathleen Bescher, director of software engineering at BAE Systems, agrees that the defense industry has plenty of opportunity for female engineers. "It's because more women are taking advantage of educational opportunities," she declares.

Bescher leads a 450-person department with seven section managers reporting to her. The process improvement effort is taking most of her time these days.

The company is working through the SEI Capability Maturity Model (CMM) for software, including planning, engineering, management, software development and maintenance. The CMM work is contributing to BAE Systems' good performance in cost, schedule, functionality and quality. Bescher also participates in technical and phase reviews: "There is certainly still a large technical side to my job," she says.

Bescher has a 1965 BS in education and history from Old Dominion University (Norfolk, VA). She taught language arts, math and art for a number of years, then took time off after she had children. In 1981 she completed a CS degree at UC-San Diego and reentered the workforce.

Her first reentry job was with Sperry/Univac (San Diego, CA) as a programmer. Over the last twenty years she's been involved in all kinds of product development work: software development and management, product line and program management.

At Singer Librascope Division (Los Angeles, CA), she developed fire control software for a submarine wire-guided torpedo system. At Titan/ADS (San Diego, CA), she was software manager for a fifteen-person team developing a Navy satellite communications system.

As a lead software engineer for Titan/VisiCom (San Diego, CA) she took an assignment in Chandler, AZ supporting software development for Motorola's Iridium global communications system space vehicle. She was executive director of engineering for the San Diego Design Center, developing a line of commercial settop box and network control products. She joined BAE in 1998.

Of all the industries she's been associated with, she thinks defense is the most interesting. "It can be exciting to see how the one little piece you work on contributes to a larger system. You might work on a hundred lines of code that might be controlling a torpedo installed in a submarine. I like that a lot."

Swales' Cathy Dankewicz: sending experiments into space

On the advice of a friend, Cathy Dankewicz registered for aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland. "I thought I was going to be doing a lot of drawing and drafting for things that would be going into outer space," she says.

She quickly realized that engineering was much more than that. "It ended up being a very challenging curriculum, and I liked that." Still, by her junior year she was starting to have second thoughts about her choice of majors.

Another friend came along with good advice: why not try a co-op? It would be a break from school and she could earn some money at the same time. "More importantly, I would get to see if I liked the work," Dankewicz remembers. She applied to Goddard Space Flight Center (Greenbelt, MD) and was accepted into the program.

"My experience at Goddard was transformational," she says. "I loved the work so much that I was determined more than ever to complete my studies." She did a co-op every other semester until she graduated in 1985.

Then she went back to Goddard to work as an aerospace engineer in the special payloads division. Her group was developing scientific experiments to go up in the cargo bay of the space shuttle on a regular basis. Dankewicz handled structural analysis on those projects.

But after the tragic Challenger accident all space shuttle launches were put on hold. NASA was reassessing the whole space program.

Dankewicz began to reflect on her own life and career. She took a year's sabbatical, visiting Asia and Australia and sailing the South Pacific. When the year was up she didn't go back to the job; instead she spent two more years touring North America.

By 1994, "I got to a point where I wanted to return as a contributing member of society," she says. "Space exploration by humans was still the most exciting work I could imagine, and it was easy for me to plug back into the field."

She got a job with Interstel, a small company supporting Goddard. She ended up as a contractor in the special payloads division, the same place she was working before she took her break. "The government was putting a big emphasis on education initiatives at the time. We were doing a lot of studies on how NASA could interface with the educational community in a positive way."

From those studies came the Space Experiment Modules program. Now it was student-created experiments that would be aboard many space shuttle flights. Dankewicz and other engineers developed the carrier system for the experiments. They designed the structure, electronics, wiring, data chips and thermal control, and wrote the documentation to put the experiments in space. "We let the schools focus on the science that went inside," she says.

When Interstel was purchased by Swales Aerospace a year later, Dankewicz brought the modules project along with her. "I was now in a position where I had designers, analysts, fabricators and QA people supporting me," she says - definitely a step up in her career.

Dankewicz and her team successfully completed the development phase and supported the first five shuttle flights for the highly successful project. It was eventually handed over to NASA's Wallops Island, VA flight facility.

In 2000 Dankewicz was asked to be a lead engineer on the Mach 1 Hitchhiker Bridge, one of the major cargo elements of the STS-108 shuttle mission. The flight would have seven major experiments mounted on a structure spanning the vehicle's cargo bay.

The assignment involved a great deal of time at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, working with other shuttle engineers and technicians on the launch. "Everything was on an accelerated schedule. I worked a lot of overtime for about a year and a half," Dankewicz remembers. The launch took place in December 2001.

Today, the space shuttle program is devoted to completing the assembly of the International Space Station, and there aren't many science missions scheduled. Dankewicz and her colleagues are working on post-flight projects, writing procedures and thinking about new projects.

"We are waiting to see what the Bush administration does regarding funding of future scientific research missions," she says. "If a shuttle flight is scheduled with space available for scientific research, I'm sure we will be getting a call."

Kerri Hylan: ME variety at Swales Aerospace

Kerri Hylan always knew she would be a mechanical engineer. Her father was an ME and always liked to have her join him in fooling around with tools or repairing cars.

She went to a science and technology high school, which further fueled her interest. As a senior in high school, she and a friend built a ten-foot-long, human-powered hovercraft.

In college she did an exciting summer internship with Techmatics (Fairfax, VA), helping to find ways to reduce exposure to hazardous material on a DDG-51 class destroyer. She received a 1996 BSME and a 1997 MSME from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, NY).

Her first job out of college was with the electronics division of W.L Gore and Associates (Newark, DE). She was an opto-electronics engineer, working with lasers for mainframe computer systems.

She joined Swales in September 2000 as an opto-mechanical design engineer, "primarily the lead ME doing everything from design to manufacturing." Her partners on the projects included NASA and Lockheed. She worked on components for the wide-field camera on the Hubble space telescope, and helped design an optical bench for a Japanese client.

The variety of projects is a big advantage of aerospace, Hylan feels. "I wasn't interested in mass production," she says. "Aerospace lets you apply what you learn to each new project."

In fact, the willingness to learn is probably the key to a successful career in aerospace, Hylan thinks. "You have to want to stay on top of the technology," she says. Of course, it helps to have someone at home to share ideas with: Hylan's husband is also an ME in aerospace.

A woman engineer, Hylan warns, needs to realize there are tough challenges out there. "The number's growing, but there just aren't a lot of women in the industry right now," she says. "You have to be willing to prove that you are capable of doing the job."

At TRW, Dr Maria Caponi develops ocean technology products

In her spare time, Dr Maria Caponi tells young women about the benefits of a career in science. "It's a question of curiosity," she says. "Girls and women see it as being too hard. I try to show them it's no harder than any other field."

Caponi is a graduate of the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. She received a degree in physics - a cross between a BS and an MS - at the age of nineteen. When a coup brought down the Argentinean government, she left for the University of Maryland to work on a PhD. She was a research assistant in the physics and astronomy department, where she specialized in plasma physics.

After graduating she received a fellowship from the U of MD center for theoretical physics to do research in non-linear plasma physics. "My intention was to go back to Argentina to work, but my advisor suggested that I try a few interviews here in the U.S. anyway," she says. One of the companies she interviewed with was TRW (Redondo Beach, CA)

She returned to Argentina in 1975, only to be greeted by an economy experiencing 1,000 percent inflation. She worked in Brazil for a year teaching nonlinear plasma physics. And then she received a letter from TRW saying that she was approved to work in the U.S. She and her husband moved to California, where she joined TRW's space group research staff. She's been with TRW in various groups and positions for twenty-five years now.

Her post until recently was manager of the ocean technology department at the space and technology division. TRW has recently reorganized, and she is now in the system and modeling simulation department of TRW Systems Engineering. Her team is responsible for developing ocean technology products for remote sensing and image processing. For example, one project involved the examination of the nonlinear interaction between ocean waves and its effect on radar.

Over the years Dr Caponi has authored nearly fifty papers in journals and more than thirty technical reports. In 2002 she received a Hispanic Engineer national achievement award.

Kerri Vaillancourt works on subs at L-3 SPD (Henschel)

The submarines that Kerri Vaillancourt is working on aren't exactly spacecraft, but they do move though the biosphere and they're certainly of importance to the national defense effort.

It was Vaillancourt's father who set her on her project-related career track. When she graduated from high school she didn't feel ready for college, and her father suggested that she might try working at his company. She took him up on the offer and joined Raytheon (Lexington, MA) in 1981.

She worked in the Waltham, MA, equipment division, starting in data entry and later moving into the software lab in Tewksbury, MA. She thought she'd like to add some skills in manufacturing, and decided to take classes offered by Fitchburg State College for Raytheon employees.

The courses segued into a full engineering program, and in 1992 Vaillancourt received a BSIE with an emphasis on manufacturing. As she worked on her degree the company increased her responsibilities, and by the time she left Raytheon in 1999 she had worked her way up to program manager for a Patriot missile radar diagnostic device and a battle-planning software program.

She went to work for Nortel Networks (Burlington, MA) as a program manager. Nortel had recently acquired a small company on the West Coast and asked Vaillancourt to integrate processes and procedures for the two companies. But when the bottom fell out of the dot-com market, Vaillancourt and her whole department were laid off.

She joined GlobalWare Solutions (Haverhill, MA), an e-commerce and distribution house. "I was the program manager over there as well," she says. "I managed the scheduling of all the hot projects that came in." The department was disbanded in 2001 while she was out on maternity leave.

Jobless for the second time, Vaillancourt stayed home for a year with her newborn twins and three-year-old. But she missed the workplace, and in May 2002 she went to work as a project engineer for L-3 Communications/SPD Technologies (Newburyport, MA), which is now a division of venerable European shipbuilder Henschel.

She's currently involved in the proposal stage of a networking system for a submarine. She's responsible for the overall health of the project, like scheduling and staying within budget. "Even though I've been here only a few months I've learned a lot about submarines. They require an intricate layout!" she says.

In the air, in space and even under the ocean, working for national pride or homeland defense, helping to tame the waves or reach the stars, women are making great careers for themselves. The opportunities, they say, are limitless.
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