By Susan Herb Best
A fun memory I have as a physics student at Cal State Fullerton was when a professor demonstrated static electricity with a large Van de Graaff generator. With long, lightweight hair, I will never forget him saying “Oooh, WOW, Medusa” when it was my turn to get charged up. It was a Bill-Nye-the-Science-Guy moment.
I also remember studying with a group of engineering majors in the evenings at the cafeteria. I was the only physics major, but being with the group gave it a nice feel of camaraderie. Just the other day, I had lunch with a member of that group who works at Boeing. We both have aged, but have fond memories of our time at CSUF.
A physics class is also where I met one of my best friends. Leslie Crosby Gillespie and I arrived at the classroom one day to find that the professor was not on campus. We looked at each other and both said, “well . . . I guess we could go to the pub.” We became such good friends. I lived at her mother’s house for a short time. Her sister even cared for my infant daughter when I returned to work after she was born. Leslie went on to earn a doctorate in chemistry and returned to CSUF as a faculty member. Sadly, she passed away unexpectedly in 2009, due to a very rare condition.
It is hard to believe it has been 30 years since graduation. In 1987, I earned a bachelor of science degree in physics. The Hubble Telescope and World Wide Web were on the near horizon.
Kurt Bengston, a Rockwell engineer and part-time physics lecturer at CSUF, introduced me to a manager at Rockwell International’s Defense and Space Division in Seal Beach, where I was hired for my first professional job after graduation. CSUF prepared me well for working in the aerospace defense business, and I never regretted my choice of major. I have worked on many challenging programs during my career at Rockwell, Boeing and Northrop Grumman, thanks to my launch at CSUF.
One of my favorite subjects was optics. My first assignment at Rockwell was to write an alignment procedure for a radar system titled CORA, Coherent Optical Radar Amplifier. It was such a large optical system that we used a theodolite, a tool used for surveying, to perform the alignment of the optics. This alignment procedure was used successfully to install the permanent system at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, for which I received accolades and a promotion.
I find it entertaining that I was less than 10 years old when the 1972 High-Power CO2 Laser Radar program began. (The lab’s “60 Innovations Over Sixty Years” includes its really cool history on Page 19.) Working on programs that enhance our scientific knowledge and advance technology development provides the added incentive of “this hasn’t been done before.”
After working for several years, I returned to CSUF to take night classes to earn a Certificate in C programming, taking advantage of CSUF’s University Extended Education offerings. Around 1994, I had the opportunity to work with a senior physicist, an Oxford Ph.D. brainiac. We were working on a project that simulated images of space-based objects taken from a ground-based telescope. The simulation modeled the distortion that the atmosphere imposed on the images.
My mentor would design the image-processing algorithms to enhance the simulated images. I used my C programming knowledge to code his algorithms. These images obviously varied with time as the satellite traveled in orbit. I then displayed those images in sequence, creating an animation as the satellite passed overhead. This innovation led beyond accolades to additional career opportunities.
After that, I started supporting satellite reconnaissance programs, looking down as opposed to looking up. I was asked to learn to use a tool known at the time as the Satellite Tool Kit and is now called the Systems Tool Kit, created by Analytical Graphics Inc. AGI uses the tagline “Mapping Space and Time.” STK is a critical tool in the industry. The software allows for modeling of anything that moves — satellites, aircraft, etc., as well as stationary objects. It makes it possible to manipulate and define relationships between objects.
I have used one of the STK modules to model rendezvous and proximity operations between satellites. Another module provides the ability to determine things like how many sensors on each satellite have access to any given point on earth over time. This module provides static as well as animated visuals that can help describe the result. My CSUF physics education did not cover the design and performance of satellite systems. It did, however, provide an excellent foundation for learning the basic capabilities of STK. With that, I was able to master advanced satellite constellation performance analyses.
I started using STK in 1996 and have been using it ever since. Around 1999, I went to work for AGI. My job was to demonstrate the tool and train users. I realized it was more fun to use the tool myself than to demonstrate the same things over again. After one year at AGI, I returned to Boeing.
Boeing acquired Rockwell in 1996. Overall, I spent 23 years with Rockwell/Boeing. Three years ago, I joined Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Space Park, Redondo Beach. Space Park was originally TRW, and it is an incredibly awesome campus with some of the most amazing programs. Although my work is on other programs, it is fun to watch progress being made on the James Webb Space Telescope. On a viewing platform, you can look through a window into the clean room, where it is being assembled. The telescope is planned for launch in 2020.
Beyond what I regard as a wonderful career, I have two even more wonderful daughters. During my tenure with various aerospace companies, I continued to work after my girls were born. When they were young, I worked part time. This afforded me the ability to sit with them during breakfast, take them to day care leisurely, pick them up and even go to Disneyland after school!
Most people didn’t even know I was working part time. Staying connected to the industry gave me the ability to return full time to my career after my girls got older and didn’t need so much of my dedicated support. I feel my continued employment has demonstrated to my girls that women can have not only careers, but successful STEM careers.
My older daughter earned a B.S. in physics from San Diego State and is pursuing a Ph.D. in data science at Chapman University. She will be interning at the Disney Consumer Product and Interactive Media Division this summer. My younger daughter is finishing her B.S. in mechanical engineering with a minor in German at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in December. She will be returning to a second internship at Tesla in Fremont this summer. I suppose having a physics grad as a husband has helped, as well. How can this proud Titan not be proud of her daughters, too?
Susan Herb Best, who earned her bachelor’s degree in physics at Cal State Fullerton, is a systems engineer at Northrop Grumman, where she practices modeling and simulation using Systems Tool Kit for mission analysis visualization.
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