China Lake parachute engineer leads by example

Technical workforce reaches out to middle-school girls in ‘Expanding Your Horizons’

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

China Lake parachute engineer leads by example“I didn’t really have any female mentors when I started my career — there just weren’t many women in this field,” said Elsa Hennings, senior systems engineer at China Lake.

Thirty years later, Hennings has not only found a way to balance a successful career with raising three daughters and staying active in the community, but also become part of a team of technical professionals who reach out to young girls to show them some of the many career choices available to them.

“You need three things do to anything — ability, opportunity and incentive,” said Hennings. China Lake launched Expanding Your Horizons (coming up on its 13th offering on March 9) to give middle-school-aged girls in the region a taste of all three by providing an inside look at one of China Lake’s labs, a chance to hear from female experts in the field and an opportunity to participate hands-on activities that teach principles of math, science and engineering in fun-filled sessions like building and testing parachutes.

Although Hennings is a dedicated mentor in EYH, she emphasized that she is just one of many China Lakers who contribute. Still, her story resonates with women who have similarly navigated a male-dominated workforce and demonstrates an evolution that indicates that the next generation of women are not just accepted but embraced in technical programs.

When Hennings was a teenager, she told her parents that she wanted to be an engineer. “My brother is a genius, and they had encouraged him to look at engineering as a career,” she said.

“When I told them that was what I wanted to do, I think they thought that I was just trying to be like him.” It was not that her parents were opposed to her seeking out a technical career, she said, it was just such an unusual career choice for a woman at that time.

“They told me I would probably be happier with music or art, so I ended up going to a big college with more choices.”

But even with all those options, it was the engineering classes that held her interest. “It was just a good fit with what I liked to do.”

While still going to college in the early 1980s, she applied for a China Lake internship. In the special-interests line she wrote “parachutes,” as she had recently taken up skydiving (“although I didn’t tell my parents that part until after college!”). That and her other qualifications prompted China Lake to offer her a fulltime job. “I told them I still had a year and a half before I graduated, but they held it until I finished my degree.”

She started in January 1983 in the group that provides parachute support for the entire Navy. She still works there today.

“Now this is the desert. And I’m from Missouri. So when I first got here and looked around I thought, ‘Eh, I might only stay a few years.’” But like so many others, she fell in love with the community (especially the “no mesquitos” and “no humidity”) and stayed.

“Probably the most amazing thing that happened to me here was that early on I met the man who was the world’s expert for parachute design.” That was Theodore Knacke — a German scientist who had left his country after World War II.

“So I would always be asking him questions, and he would teach me — he was a great storyteller. Here I didn’t even know that he was the industry expert, and I got to be in his bubble of influence.”

Knacke literally wrote the book (and at China Lake, too!) on parachute design. “But not everything was in the book,” noted Hennings.

So when Hennings began to design and make parachutes, she came up with a different way to make a radial seam. When he saw what she had done, he told her that was not the way to do it. “Still, I thought, since I had already made several parachutes using this design that I didn’t want to scrap, I went ahead and tested seam samples using the tensile test machine along with seam samples constructed according to his design.”

Hennings’ design turned out to be much stronger. Knacke later came back to look at that data, and turned to her and said, “Oh! That is an excellent seam!” So she kept on using it.

Knacke later surprised her when, during his keynote address at the bi-annual conference for the parachute industry, he publicly recognized her for her contribution.

“That was very encouraging to me. I have tried to do the same for the young engineers in my career, but I also do that with the girls in EYH,” said Hennings. “You don’t want to quench the fire of creativity. You want to strengthen and encourage people when they are working on new ideas.”

Middle school is the perfect age to reach out, she said, “because you can see that this is when kids are struggling to come into their own identities. Showing them what’s available and giving them positive directions to channel their energies can make all the difference. Every year I see girls who start out maybe thinking about their hair and clothes and how they compare to their peers. By the end of the workshops, they are fully engaged and interested and asking really good questions.”

Although China Lake had significant contributions from the women in its workforce since even the earliest days — and has even seen a woman, Dr. Karen Higgens, leading the technical workforce — those women role models are more numerous now.

“And there are a lot of reasons that female role models are important — not just for your career, but when you are making choices about family,” said Hennings. “My priority was raising my children, and I was lucky to be able to work part time until about three years ago. Now I make sure to take the time to talk to other women about how you can manage both.”

Even putting her career on the back burner during her “mom” years didn’t keep Hennings from some historic opportunities — among those a chance to work on three generations of Mars missions.

Two of Hennings’ co-workers originally traveled to Jet Propulsion Laboratories to talk about testing the retro-rockets for the Pathfinder mission. When JPL realized that China Lake had fabrication capabilities, her team was called in to make custom tethers. “That was my first involvement,” she said.

During development for the Mars Exploration Rover, JPL returned to do testing and asked Hennings and her team for an even more complicated set of tethers. But when JPL began having issues with the parachutes, she was called in as an expert for the “Tiger Team.” She helped resolve that issue as well.

“Then Mars Science Laboratory came along,” she said. This was the largest payload anyone had ever tried to land on Mars. Some testing problems arose with the parachute, and Hennings was again asked to help troubleshoot. Fortunately, the system performed flawlessly during the August 2012 landing.

The next missions will require much larger payloads and a different deceleration scheme from what has been flown in the past “If we want to look at big science payloads or human habitation, we’ve got to look outside the box at different ways to land things.”

She and her team are now working on the largest-ever Martian parachute system to accommodate one of these giant payloads.

Hennings and the China Lake team continue to help troubleshoot for JPL — everything from making design improvements to perfecting test conditions to compensate for the dramatic difference in atmospheric density between earth and Mars. High-altitude tests are best, but expensive. So China Lake is now working on an innovative solution.

Even so, “On landing day I’m a wreck.” If the parachute seems like just one of a multitude of critical components, a parachute failure would result in the loss of the entire payload. “It’s an important piece.” And so far, they have been able to accomplish successful execution every time.

In a queer twist of irony, Hennings’ own daughters have opted for career paths much different from hers. “My youngest two spent much of their free time during high school doing ballet, and I thought, ‘How did THIS happen?’”

Now one is doing well in law school and another is looking at a career in accounting. But having learned from her own experience, she has encouraged her daughters to pursue what they are passionate about.

“I just want them to be happy and productive in whatever the choose.”

In the meantime, their mom continues to help build a landscape where all career opportunities remain open to everyone.

Story First Published: 2013-03-06