More than 75 years ago, Barbara (Wylie) Canright ’40 helped lift the Jet Propulsion Laboratory off the ground. Half a century later, Eleanor Helin ’54 discovered a staggering number of asteroids. And today, Diane Evans ’76 charts a course for new discoveries—all part of a celestial legacy of Oxy alumnae in the space program
By Lori L. Ferguson
Eleanor Helin '54 blazed a trail throughout her career, much like the asteroids she discovered and researched over the course of more than 40 years at Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. A planetary scientist and astronomer, Helin was a pioneer in the search and survey of near-Earth asteroids—planetary bodies that occasionally pass near Earth and can pose a dangerous impact hazard. "We feel that about 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs and other biota were extinguished—snuffed out by an asteroid roughly six miles or 10 kilometers [wide]," she told a KCAL reporter in 1998. "And we want to avoid having this happen to human beings."
Before she trained her eye on the sky, Helin used her geology training to study minerals, rocks, and landforms on Earth. That changed in 1960, when she helped establish the Lunar Research Lab at Caltech "to help NASA know more about how and where to land on the surface of the moon," according to Dan Malerbo of the Buhl Planetarium and Observatory in Pittsburgh.
Her interest in meteorites and the impact origin of lunar craters led her to create the Palomar Planet-Crossing Asteroid Survey at Caltech's Palomar Observatory, a program that has subsequently been responsible for the discovery of thousands of asteroids of all types, including approximately 30 percent of the near-Earth asteroids discovered worldwide. Starting in 1972, with an 18-inch Schmidt telescope, Helin discovered or co-discovered a handful of comets and a staggering 872 asteroids.
Four years after moving to JPL in 1980, Helin initiated the International Near-Earth Asteroid Survey—a global effort to coordinate near-Earth sightings. On Aug. 9, 1989, Helin and her associates at the Palomar Observatory made one of their biggest discoveries, capturing the first two-dimensional image of an asteroid—two bodies, actually, "dancing cheek to cheek across the solar system," as Los Angeles Times science writer Lee Dye put it—when it came within 2.5 million miles of Earth, or 11 times the distance to the moon.
Advancements in technology only intensified Helin's research efforts. In 1995, she became the principal investigator for the Near Earth Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) program, a collaborative effort of NASA, JPL, and the Air Force that (using a deep-space surveillance telescope located on Haleakala, Maui, Hawai'i, linked to a JPL computer) led to the detection of more than 26,000 objects, including 30 near-Earth asteroids, in just its first three years of existence.
Helin, who was inducted into the Women in Technology Hall of Fame in 1998, retired from JPL in 2002 and died seven years later. She received numerous other honors in her lifetime, including a NASA Special Achievement Award in 1986, an honorary doctorate from Oxy in 1992 (having left the College just shy of completing her degree), and the JPL Award for Excellence and NASA's Group Achievement Award for her efforts with the NEAT program in 1997. "Glo" even has a celestial body named for her: Asteroid 3267 Glo, discovered Jan. 3, 1981, by astronomer Edward Bowell at Lowell Observatory near Flagstaff, Ariz.
When science writer Nathalia Holt was pregnant with her first child in 2010, "my husband and I were just having a terrible time coming up with a name," she told NPR last year. After thinking up Eleanor Frances, they Googled the name—and the first match that popped up was Eleanor Francis Helin, along with "this beautiful picture of her at NASA in the 1960s accepting an award," Holt recalled. "I was stunned by this picture because I hadn't realized that women even worked at NASA at this time, much less as scientists."
Her subsequent research revealed a group of women, referred to as "human computers," who played a key role in the U.S. space program—including another Oxy alumna, Barbara (Wylie) Canright '40, who in 1939 helped launch what eventually became JPL. Subsequently, Holt wrote the 2016 bestseller Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars. Holt devoted the first chapter to Canright, whose contributions laid the foundation for subsequent generations of alumnae working on JPL's space explorations and earth science missions.
Barby Canright's story is a fascinating mix of propriety and originality. The Ohio native eloped when she was 18 and moved to Southern California, where her husband, Richard, enrolled in graduate school at Caltech. She took a job as a typist at the university and continued working on her bachelor's degree at Occidental as time permitted. Although gifted with numbers, a career as a scientist was not a viable option for a woman in the late 1930s, so Canright took mathematics courses for her own enjoyment. "She had an endless curiosity about life and loved learning new things," recalls daughter Patricia Canright Smith, a visual and literary artist in Seattle who created a book about Canright following her mother's death.
Then, in 1940, Canright was presented with an unusual opportunity that would place her in the path of history. After arriving in Pasadena, she and Richard became fast friends with a trio of young men—Frank Malina, Jack Parsons, and Ed Forman—known around Caltech as the Suicide Squad. The three were interested in rockets and spent hours trying to build a working device in this nascent science. In 1939, the National Academy of Sciences recognized their efforts, awarding the men—who were working under the formal name of the GALCIT (Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology) Rocket Research Project—$1,000 to pursue their research. The following year, the grant was increased to $10,000, and Richard and Barby were invited to join the project as mathematicians.
It was a fateful decision. Over the next three years, the group worked feverishly to realize their dream—a rocket plane powered by a jet engine strong enough to keep the aircraft aloft. The science community was skeptical, so much so that when the group of inventors decided to form an institute, they avoided the word rocket altogether, instead naming their organization the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
As the men conducted their experiments, Canright dutifully crunched the numbers, calculating the thrust produced by each rocket engine and connecting the data to flight results in hopes of discovering what was required to make the JPL test plane fly. Finally, on Aug. 12, 1941, the team achieved success, utilizing rockets to lift their plane off the ground in half the distance normally required.
In the coming months, Canright would continue to run the numbers, eventually determining how many rockets were needed to lift a bomber into the sky before turning her attention to calculating the potential of rocket propellant, work that would ultimately be used to perfect rockets owned by the U.S. Navy.
Canright's participation in the group drew to an end as 1943 dawned. She was pregnant, and because maternity leave was not yet available, her only option was to resign from JPL. She left the workforce entirely, turning her attention instead to life as a wife and mother.
Diane Evans '76 began her relationship with JPL as a senior at Oxy, working as an academic part-time or "APT." The position offered her an introduction to the lab's remote- sensing technology—something Evans says she wouldn't have gotten access to otherwise.
After receiving a geology degree, Evans went on to graduate school at the University of Washington, earning a Ph.D. in geological sciences and then returning to JPL for "a job offer she couldn't refuse." She has continued her work in remote sensing technology at the lab for the last 20 years, studying Earth via airborne and spaceborne radar aboard aircraft and spacecraft.
"When you look out while flying in an airplane, you can see things where your eye is sensitive," Evans explains. "In remote-sensing technology, we build sensors that are sensitive to things that the eye can't see, such as a rise in sea level that's visible from a satellite." The radar can also be sensitive to texture and faults and, when combined with low-resolution satellite imagery, enables scientists to create more precise geological maps from space.
"With all of the different technologies here, one can have several careers and never leave JPL," Evans says. Prior to her current appointment, she worked successively as supervisor of the Radar Sciences Group, as a project scientist on JPL's spaceborne-imaging radar projects, as deputy manager of the Science and Information Systems Office, and as chief scientist of earth science programs.
When then-JPL director Charles Elachi started the Earth Science and Technology Directorate in 2001, naming Evans as its director, "That was a huge step for me," Evans said during a roundtable discussion on women leaders in space exploration at JPL in March 2012. "By having really great people in the directorate, we have been able to accomplish a lot and start a lot of new missions [such as Aquarius, a joint venture with Argentina and Brazil to map the salinity at the ocean surface] and get the science data down."
During that same roundtable discussion, Evans waxed enthusiastic about the future of space exploration, and of the opportunities for women in particular. "When I look at this group and I think about what you're going to be able to accomplish in the next few years, it's going to be really exciting," she said. "We're going to get samples back from Mars, we're going to be getting data streaming from some of the moons of the outer planets—whether it's Enceladus or Titan or Europa—and I think one of the coolest things is we're going to be looking at atmospheres of Earth-like planets around other stars. The Kepler mission [launched in 2009] has opened up this whole new world to us of how many planets might be out there that are just like our planet."
A casual conversation with a fellow congregant at the Unitarian Fellowship of the Foothills in 1975 landed undergraduate Louise Stoehr '78 M'80 a summer job at JPL—and once hired, she says, "I simply stayed."
In her early days at the lab, Stoehr worked in image processing, taking image data provided by JPL spacecraft and running it through the appropriate programs for processing according to the scientists' needs. The summer of '76 was especially intense, she recalls, as scientists were preparing for the first landing of the Viking orbiter. "Our team was responsible for processing all of the pictures from the orbiter, which arrived on large nine-track tapes, so that the scientists could decide where to land the craft."
After the Viking project, Stoehr worked briefly on the Voyager mission, then moved on to JPL's propulsion subsection and the Galileo project, a probe to be sent to Jupiter. The young German major's charge: translating all of the mission's technical and legal documents into English. "The German aerospace manufacturer Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm provided the propulsion subsystem for Galileo and they sent all of the correspondence related to the project—formal test results, failure reports, faxes, etc.—in German, which obviously wasn't of any help to our English-speaking scientists."
After more than a decade at JPL, including five years as technical translator on the Galileo project, she left to pursue her Ph.D. in German studies at the University of Texas at Austin. A key element in that decision, she recalls, was "the day the assistant director of JPL took a day of vacation and requested that I be the person to teach him the system I had been working on. It was then that I realized I should be working with people, specifically with learners. The time had come for me to reconnect with my own passion."
Software engineer Irina Strickland '97 spends her days at JPL coaxing information from a series of zeros and ones, a task that delights her. She joined the lab in August 2015 after 13 years of working there as a contractor for Raytheon.
A mathematics major at Occidental, Strickland is now a group supervisor for instrument software and science data systems at JPL, responsible for managing the multi-instrument retrieval of the lab's massive ground data system. She works directly with JPL scientists, programming their algorithms in order to process the data retrieved from the instruments.
"Data comes down from various spacecraft pieces and we convert it into humanly readable information," explains Strickland, who also has a master's in engineering management from Walden University. "For example, a series of zeros and ones come down to us and after they're processed we have information on volume mixing ratios for ozone, CO2, etc., which scientists then use for climate studies and the like. I love programming. It's great fun, and you get your own little victories every day."
For more than two decades—including four years at the San Diego Air and Space Museum and nearly eight years at the USC Pacific Asia Museum—Amelia Chapman '93 has led informal education initiatives in museums. When given the opportunity to join the NASA Museum Alliance group in spring 2015, Chapman, who majored in studio arts at Oxy, didn't hesitate. "Working in education for a typical museum, you can have an impact on a few hundred people," she says. "Through JPL, you can reach thousands."
Informal education encompasses all of the places where people are learning outside of school, Chapman explains, and the Museum Alliance is the "front door" to NASA for individuals and organizations seeking to inspire new generations through exposure to space exploration and scientific discovery.
Among the Alliance's main tools is a public events calendar listing everything from the dates of Cassini mission events to virtual visits with science, technology, engineering, and math experts from the Goddard Space Flight Center. Chapman and her co-workers also maintain a website comprised of teaching resources, and presenting professional development opportunities to connect educators with experts throughout NASA.
Chapman conducts a bit of informal education for Occidental students as well, raising awareness of her department through JPL's on-campus career day. "I was the first non-science or engineering alumna to participate in the lab's annual career information seminar for Occidental students," she notes proudly. "It's important for people to realize that there are numerous career opportunities here in addition to the more traditional science and engineering roles."
Just as it did for Evans and Stroehr decades ago, Oxy continues to provide a launching pad for undergraduates looking to get a taste of the JPL experience. Emma Crow-Willard '11, for instance, transferred from Bates College to Occidental after a single year so that she could work at JPL while studying geology and theater: "I was interested in looking for aliens," she admits with a chuckle.
She spent three years at JPL using images gathered from the Cassini mission probe to create a geological map of Saturn's moon Enceladus. "Our focus was planetary bodies with the potential for life—we were looking for liquid water," says Crow-Willard, who is now pursuing a master's in environmental management at Yale University's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
This semester, Stephanie Angulo '19, an undeclared major from Sonoma, and Ellen Shin '17, a mathematics major from Burbank, are interning at JPL for up to 15 hours a week as part of the Student Independent Research Program, founded in 2003 to encourage JPL scientists to mentor local college students and help them prepare for careers in science and engineering. Angulo is analyzing current alarm-system designs for the Deep Space Network operating facilities and developing potential new prototypes for future designs.
"Aside from the project, the atmosphere of JPL was not what I expected it to be at all," she blogged on the Oxy admission website. "The DSN design team is super collaborative and punny," she added, "and emoji usage between JPLers is surprisingly high."
Ferguson wrote "The Showgirl Must Go On" in the Summer 2016 magazine.