Beyond the mountaintop
From soaring peaks to deep space, this engineer thrives on exploration
As a little girl living in a small town in Wisconsin, Susan Massihzadeh would see bridges and buildings and wonder how they were made. Instead of begging her parents for a Disney vacation, she wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge and Paris's Eiffel Tower. Her own backyard was peppered with childhood contruction projects.
”I started building sand castles, tree houses and cardboard club houses to see if I could make them withstand the impact of my brothers and dogs,” Massihzadeh said. “Then, I went on to study structural engineering in college. I loved learning about the physics and mechanics of structures. I decided to make it my career.”
When Massihzadeh joined Raytheon, she thought the sky would be the limit, but her explorations would take her much further. Today, she leads the Earth and Space Observing Solutions division of Raytheon’s Intelligence, Information and Services business. She oversees space programs like the flight operations system for the James Webb Space Telescope, soon to orbit the Earth as NASA's premier observatory, and the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System, which meteorologists use to predict the weather more accurately.
Her spirit of exploration led Massihzadeh from her interest in skyscrapers to her work sending satellites soaring into space. And it's sent her around the world.
“I’ve always had a thirst for learning about different cultures, different places and different things,” she said. “Some people have the misconception that engineers are a bunch of nerds doing nerd activities. That can’t be further from the truth. Being an engineer is exciting and has given me a chance to see the world.”
Massihzadeh has been on every continent except Antarctica, often seeing the world from a vantage point enjoyed by few: the summits of mountain peaks. The engineer is also a mountaineer, avid hiker and a soon-to-be private pilot.
“Some of my favorite hikes have been Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Machu Pichu, Peru,” she said. “My dad got me into hiking, and we did Kilimanjaro together, when he was 72. He’s in his 80s now, living at 10,000 feet in Colorado.”
Massihzadeh has hiked about half of Colorado’s 53 “fourteeners,” mountain peaks with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet. She credits her mountaineering as one of the reasons that she transitioned from designing structures on the ground to rocketing technology into space.
“When you’re high up in the mountains, you don’t have light pollution and you see incredible night skies,” she said. “It’s made me wonder, ‘What’s up there? Is there life?’ And after the James Webb Space Telescope is launched in 2019, we just might get answers to some of these questions. The telescope will look into deep space at the origins of the Big Bang, detecting water and looking for signs of life. It will be very exciting to see what will be found.”
Another one of Massihzadeh’s passions is inspiring girls to study and pursue careers in science, math, technology and Engineering, or STEM for short. She also mentors young engineers at Raytheon in Aurora, Colorado, where she is the site executive.
Women fill about 47 percent of all U.S. jobs, but hold only 24 percent of STEM jobs, according to November 2017 Department of Commerce report on “Women in STEM.” Likewise, women make up slightly more than half of college-educated workers, but only 25 percent of women are college-educated STEM workers.
“I think that some girls get discouraged that it’s going to be all math, all the time, and that it’s going to be boring,” Massihzadeh said. “Engineers solve problems, and they’re very important to our world. Just look around; just about everything is built by engineers."
Editor's Note: Massihzadeh will be one of the mentors at “Girls & Science,” an annual STEM event at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, March 3, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mountain Time.