San Diego engineer Mary Baker, a force in aerospace, dies at 77

Mary Baker, a pioneering San Diego engineer whose work influenced the design of the International Space Station and the recovery of NASA’s shuttle program after the Challenger disaster, died on Sept. 7 in Del Mar. She was 77.

Baker, who had been fighting multiple myeloma for nearly four years, passed away in her sleep, according to her husband, Wayne Pfeiffer.

At the time of her death, Baker was a technical director and board chairman at ATA Engineering, a San Diego testing and analysis company she co-founded in 2000 to stake her claim in Southern California’s huge aerospace industry.

She rode her bike 20-plus miles to the ATA office in Sabre Springs well into her 70s and swam 400 meters the day before she died, Pfeiffer said on Tuesday.

Her many contributions earned Baker election to the National Academy of Engineering, the elite honorary and advisory society whose members include Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs and former US Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall.

“She was quite the intellect, and quite the supporter of UC San Diego,” said Albert Pisano, dean of the university’s Jacobs School of Engineering.

“She supported internships for our students and hired our graduates. And she built a company with brilliant engineers that blended our students in with her solution-oriented SWAT teams.

“She always got to the core of a problem. People would say, ‘If you’ve got a problem, go see Mary at ATA.’ ”

Baker was a Wisconsin native who grew up in an era when comparatively few women entered engineering, and those who did often were not warmly welcomed.

She was born on July 30, 1944, in Madison, the daughter of J. Gordon Baker, a mechanical engineer, and his wife, Betty Baker, a homemaker. They lived not far away, in Evansville.

As a youngster, Baker took an interest in engineering, learning about the field from her father, who ran a manufacturing company. Pfeiffer says a formative moment came between her junior and senior years of high school, when she was chosen to attend the National High School Institute for Engineering and Science at Northwestern University in Chicago. There were 100 students, only eight of whom were women.

She later enrolled at the University of Wisconsin and pursued engineering, where she was almost turned away from a materials class by an instructor.

“He thought it was unlikely that a woman would go on to be an engineer, and he did not want to waste his time teaching her,” said Pfeiffer, a computer scientist.

Baker prospered. She earned a degree in the engineering mechanics program.

She then earned a Master’s degree and a doctorate at Caltech, where she worked with renowned bioengineer J. Harold Wayland on projects that improved science’s ability to study and measure blood as it flowed through the tiniest of vessels.

Baker worked at several companies after leaving Caltech, doing everything from creating computer models of earthquakes to studying the performance of magnetically levitated trains.

Her career took a big leap in 1977 after she joined Structural Dynamics Research Corp (SDRC), a San Diego-based engineering software and services company. She guided the development of 3-D software that greatly helped NASA and its contractors to collaborate while they were designing, modifying and testing components for the International Space Station, which has been occupied by humans since late 2000.

The software also helped NASA to detect damage to the space shuttle fleet that had been missed during earlier inspections. This proved to be especially valuable in the late 1980s, when NASA was upgrading the orbiters in the wake of the shuttle Challenger accident, which killed seven astronauts.

Baker’s career took another major turn in 2000 when she and her colleagues founded ATA Engineering, which quickly became a leader in the advanced design, testing and analysis of aerospace systems. The company played a pivotal role in helping NASA figure out how to safely land the rover Curiosity on Mars in 2012. The spacecraft is still operational.

ATA also works in other fields, including defense, entertainment and robotics.

In addition to Pfeiffer, Baker is survived by the couple’s two children, Betsy and Gordon Pfeiffer, and her sister, Ann Baker Burgess.

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