The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) history of embracing the skills of women dates back to the 1940s.
By Mario Boucher
From the “hidden figures” like Katherine Jonson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson to the “trajectory calculators” such as Barbara Paulson, Macie Roberts and Helen Ling, JPL has been at the forefront of hiring women of different cultures to spearhead the U.S. space program. In the late 1950s, the “human computers”— women trained to program in Fortran like Sue Finley—plotted data by hand long before electronic computers began performing the function in the 1970s.
The tradition has continued since, with the hiring of women from diverse backgrounds, including Debora Wolfenbarger, hired in 1988, and Moogega Stricker who came on board in 2010. Their skills and effective teamwork are emblematic examples of the contribution the women of JPL have been quietly making for decades.
Wolfenbarger is a technology transfer specialist who has been with JPL for 40 years and has witnessed the contributions of women over that time. She recalls working with many, many talented women over the years. “It’s really amazing what the women here at JPL have accomplished,” she says.
Stricker, whose tenure began more recently is nevertheless cognizant of her predecessor’s achievements and proud to follow in the footsteps of women like Joan Feynman and Sue Finley. “Someone else has paved the way for me first of all to even be here,” she says. “I continue to try to pave the way for future people.”
With a PhD in mechanical engineering and a concentration in thermal fluid sciences, as the lead in the Planetary Protection Program for the Mars 2020 Mission, Stricker is a “hunter” of bacteria. When it comes to space travel, she is charged with making sure what grows on Earth stays on Earth. She is also involved with the InSight Mission which developed the Mars rover technology.
“The amazing thing about JPL is its similarity to academia, where international communities come together to build a spacecraft,” says Stricker. Stricker is referring specifically to the atmosphere at JPL that focuses on the qualifications of a person regardless of ethnic or cultural background, which results in a diverse work environment.
Wolfenbarger agrees, adding that JPL is simply a great place to work and to be a major contributor. “Nobody here ever saw being a woman as being any different than anyone else,” she says. “I’ve always felt that I’ve been on an equal playing field with everybody. I’ve been given opportunities to do things that most people would totally dream about doing.”
Anyone, regardless of sex and cultural background, is given a chance to shine (amidst the stars). It creates a positive work environment with a family atmosphere. “When you’re here, it’s like family…without all the drama!”
Though a generation apart, both women ended up at JPL by following an intentional path. Stricker had to earn her stripes through hard and persistent work. “It all started in middle school where I was horrible in mathematics and science,” she says. This is why she preaches the importance of believing in yourself. “That’s what I tell kids all the time—that you’re not born a genius and then all of a sudden you work for NASA.”
Beginning at 16, until she entered college, Stricker began computer programming, comparing satellite data with ground-based data in a cooperative education program, working at NASA Langley. When Stricker eventually went looking for an internship, she applied and was accepted at JPL. “I did my internship here at JPL, where I was able to lineup my post-doc and from my post-doc, I was hired full-time.”
She was interested from the beginning in the Planetary Protection program, which was close to what she had been studying. “My PhD work was plasma sterilization of spacecraft material,” said Stricker, who was intrigued by bacteria and wanted to learn about bacteria on Earth and other planets.
Wolfenbarger began working in the Flight Operations office for the Voyager project where the focus was technology rather than biology. “What’s interesting is I came to JPL through a friend of mine who was leaving a job in flight operations for the Voyager spacecraft,” she says. Wolfenbarger’s background is in animal science and music but the JPL opportunity was music to her ears!
“I kind of worked my way around the laboratory working in astrophysics for a while and then moved on to Technology Transfer, where we take technology that has been developed for deep space exploration and transfer it to the private sector. The whole idea is to boost the economy, create jobs and solve problems that are of national significance,” says Wolfenbarger.
Wolfenbarger thought it would be exciting to work at JPL—and she was not disappointed. “Working with scientists and engineers on the first Voyager encounter was absolutely unbelievable,” she notes, even if it meant staying at the office through the night.
“I thought this job would be exciting and, since I moved into Technology Transfer, I’ve worked with people that you can only dream of meeting.” People that incidentally included “some guy” named Stephen Hawking.
While Wolfenbarger has focused on the technology of space exploration, Stricker has been ensuring that biology is handled safely and responsibly throughout. As part of JPL’s Biotechnology and Planetary Protection Group (BPPG), Stricker is involved in space microbiology research and technology development, ensuring that spacecraft going to Mars or returning to Earth meet the stringent cleanliness required to prevent forward and backward contaminations. Forward contamination is microbial contamination of the solar system by spacecraft launched from Earth and backward contamination is extraterrestrial contamination of the Earth and Moon by way of sample return missions.
Stricker’s job is to ensure that the samples are not contaminated. “For humanity, to make sure we don’t bring something [to and from Mars] that may harm us,” she explains. “That’s my job to make sure that we contain it properly. Humans are a cesspool of bacteria.” Bacteria can profoundly impact any planet, she notes.
The group advances spacecraft cleanliness, sterilization, and validation technologies for NASA’s solar system exploration missions. “It’s my job to ensure that we don’t bring contamination to Mars,” says Stricker. She feels a responsibility to do the right thing and “that’s how I measure my success professionally. Did we get everything right?”
Just as Stricker’s work ensures our exploration does not inadvertently contaminate other worlds or bring other worldly pathogens to ours, Wolfenbarger, named JPL’s representative on NASA’s Commercial Management team last year, looks for real world application of the technologies developed through space research. Wolfenbarger helps promote many of the JPL advances and innovations that we now take for granted, and she works with scientists and engineers to adapt technology to benefit society. “The businesses that we’ve worked with and their desire to do things to better people have been amazing.”
Although JPL looks outward toward the larger Universe, the science is ultimately all about accomplishing achievements that benefit society here on Earth. “In my area, in Technology Transfer, it’s about working closely with the innovators,” says Wolfenbarger. “We help them and the company that they work with to get visibility, both within NASA and through different Technology Transfer, to let people know this is the kind of stuff we’re doing to help society.”
And JPL innovations, well beyond headline grabbers like the Mars rover, save lives around the world. For instance, Finder, which resembles carry-on luggage, was developed with Homeland Security to search for survivors in natural disasters, including earthquakes, hurricanes and mudslides. “Finder can actually detect heartbeat and respiration through concrete and it’s more accurate than a search dog,” says Wolfenbarger. The device helped find four individuals after an earthquake in Nepal last year.
Perhaps the most famous JPL invention of all is inside your cellphone. “Everybody that’s got a camera on their cellphone that came from JPL,” said Wolfenbarger. There have been many more amazing success stories (see sidebar).
“I think I have a unique way of being able to network between innovators and companies and have them understand each other,” says Wolfenbarger. “I like getting people excited about the space program and also getting them to understand that the investments they’re making for space benefits everybody here on the planet; we take that very seriously.”
Stricker too, takes her responsibility as spokesperson for the space program seriously. “My personal measure for success is how many people I can get interested in science,” says Stricker.
That’s why, with the help of JPL, Stricker takes every opportunity to visit schools and colleges. “They provide all the framework if I want to talk to students,” she says. There are few more interactive opportunities than having one of the rovers literally drive over the kids as they lie down on the ground!
Both Stricker and Wolfenbarger value the opportunities JPL has and continues to provide them and other women to advance the cause of space exploration and science generally. And both are proud to represent both their science and their gender. With JPL’s continued commitment to employing the most creative minds without prejudice, women like Stricker and Wolfenbarger will continue pressing forward with their mission of exploration and discovery as equal contributors in our continued quest for knowledge of the Universe.