MS ’67, PhD ’72
Sample of Achievements and Awards
- At SDRC, implemented solid-modeling methods used in the design of the International Space Station, the Space Shuttle, and the shuttle-recovery program
- At ATA, provided advanced analysis and support to the Mars Science Laboratory and James Webb Space Telescope
- ATA named one of the top small workplaces in the US by the Wall Street Journal
- Most Innovative Employee-Owned Award given to ATA from the National Center for Employee Ownership and the Beyster Institute at UCSD’s Rady School of Management
Awarded by NASA
- Small Business Subcontractor of the Year, 2010
- Thomas H. May Legacy of Excellence for Outstanding Subcontractor Performance, 2011
- George M. Low Award for Quality and Excellence, 2012
When JPL needed to test whether its car-sized rover Curiosity, with its complement of advanced cameras, sensors, and tools, would be able to withstand the landing and harsh conditions of the Martian surface for its two-year mission, it turned to Mary Baker and her company, ATA Engineering.
“There was no test flight on earth that could confirm the landing would work on Mars,” says Baker. Instead, rigorous testing was conducted inside computers, using models and processes developed by Baker and her team. “We were able to apply our capabilities, tools, and methods—and contribute to the success of an exciting mission.”
For more than three decades, Baker has been at the leading edge of engineering design, testing, and analysis.
Baker earned her PhD in applied mechanics at Caltech, where she studied the fluid mechanics of blood as part of J. Harold Wayland’s bioengineering group. Soon after leaving Caltech, she switched to space applications.
In 1977, she joined Structural Dynamics Research Corporation (SDRC), an early pioneer in computer-aided design and analysis, which she helped adapt to the unique needs of the aerospace industry. Eventually, Baker went to work for NASA.
When the space agency began work on the International Space Station in the 1980s, it needed to share the evolving design with all of its centers and contractors around the globe. “NASA needed to be able to integrate all disciplines important to the design,” says Baker. “This could include structures, dynamics, thermal, controls, aerodynamics, and orbital mechanics. Our multidisciplinary approach greatly increased communication, shortened the time between iterations, and led to higher performance configurations.”
SDRC continued to play a significant role in a number of NASA projects, offering design support for the Space Shuttle and shuttle-recovery efforts. Its methods and tools quickly spread into wide use, so much so that the company eventually began to morph into a software firm.
In 2000, Baker led the friendly spin-off of a new company, ATA Engineering Inc., which has continued to provide award-winning design, analysis, and testing to the aerospace industry as well as other industries that face complex engineering challenges , such as theme parks.
The company is also unusual in that it is entirely employee owned. “No one owns more than 3 percent of the company, and every full-time employee gets a share of our annual distribution,” says Baker, now president of ATA. “And best of all, I get to keep doing the engineering I love to do.” Most recently, Baker advanced new methods to optimize the structures of rocket engines, including the RL10B-2 and J-2X.
Baker also led ATA’s involvement with the Curiosity rover. The company performed thousands of computer simulations of the landing phase to see how well the rover’s six wheels could handle a possible rough or uneven landing site. ATA engineers also analyzed the robotic arm to make sure that the jarring work of the drill would not damage other delicate equipment. In 2013, ATA received NASA’s George M. Low Award for technical and business excellence.
Baker remains steadfastly committed to fundamental research and education. ATA and its employees collaborate with several universities, maintaining active student co-op and intern programs, as well as jointly developing and teaching classes.
“Many engineers believe that you have to make a choice between an academic career or a big company,” Baker says. “I believe that we have discovered a wonderful place in between, where you can still do research and find solutions to real-world problems that make a difference.”