|Terry AtienzaMoore: “Anything that gets our weapons systems where they need to go.”
Terry AtienzaMoore heads up the engineering sciences division in the research department at the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) weapons division-China Lake in the California desert. The research department works on everything from “discovering new molecules that go bang,” to formulating them and understanding how they behave, to loading them in weapons and shooting them off in test configuration.
China Lake is probably the Navy’s largest lab in terms of R&D;, engineering and testing of new weapons systems. “We have more civilians and are more research focused than most other Navy facilities,” AtienzaMoore says. “We work on explosives and propellants, anything that gets our weapons systems where they need to go and lets them do their job once they get there.”
That includes new radars and seekers, weapons systems, and integration with the planes. “We have an air test and evaluation squadron out here as well,” she notes. Plenty of room for all: China Lake is a 1.1 million acre site, “just a hair smaller than the state of Delaware.”
Joining the Navy
AtienzaMoore graduated from the University of California-San Diego in 1977 with a BS in chemistry and an earth science specialization. But there was a recession on, and she didn’t hook up with a job in her field until 1979.
“China Lake was the first to call me and I said ‘yes’ to it sight unseen,” she remembers. “They brought me in as a physical science technician in the research department. After almost two years in retail, I jumped at the opportunity.
“They hired me in at a pretty low level,” she explains. “So I’ve gone from the very bottom of the barrel to a fairly senior manager at this point.”
Woman in energetics
When she was starting there, China Lake had plenty of other women in technical positions but not many in explosives and propellants. Today there are more. “When I go to international meetings, I see that the U.S. has the highest percentage of women scientists working in the field of energetics.”
AtienzaMoore has been in energetics for most of her career, working in and around weapons systems. “I’ve always had an interest in exciting chemistry,” she reflects with a smile, “and it doesn’t get much more exciting than building something and then blowing it up.”
The center, AtienzaMoore notes, is not directly funded by tax dollars. “We do business with the weapons manufacturers and the Navy program offices. We have to justify everything we do and sell our programs to get them funded.”
AtienzaMoore began life as a Navy brat. She was born at a California naval station and grew up at other stations in Idaho, Connecticut, Virginia and then San Diego, CA, where she went to high school.
“From the age of five,” she says, “I had an analytical approach to things. I set out to test the theory of gravity off the front porch and that resulted in my needing stitches in my head. It upset my mom quite a bit.
“My dad was a sailor on a nuclear submarine. He worked on the power plant and was learning radiochemistry and chemical testing for water purity on the reactors. That piqued my curiosity. I started playing with chemicals and made some smelly messes in the Navy housing – which did not endear me to the neighbors.”
She’s still doing it. “My career has been looking at optimizing chemical reactions,” she says. “Chemistry is the real reason why things go together the way they do.”
Starting at China Lake
AtienzaMoore began her career at China Lake with a job in the stockroom. “I’d come in, get my work done early in the morning and then go hang around the people who were doing real chemistry.”
Within a year she had worked her way into a rotation program for new grads. “I took three tours, all in research chemistry, and then spent another year working in laser chemistry.”
Next she got involved in a survey of the center’s mineral rights. “We had to evaluate all the mineral deposits for economic worth. The government paid me for two years to collect rocks. I felt guilty the whole time about getting paid for having fun.”
The weapons field
After these exhilarating apprenticeships she moved into serious work in the weapons field. First it was biological and chemical weapons defense, then developing new warheads with “insensitive” explosives.
“People in the Navy have to sleep on top of their weapons magazines,” she explains. “It’s really important to have an explosive or propellant that sits there like a rock and does nothing until it’s commanded to do its job.
“I decided I needed to understand what it takes to make an insensitive explosive. I went to work in our pilot plant and looked at new ingredients as well as formulations.”
It’s something like baking a cake, AtienzaMoore says with a smile. “The explosive ingredient is a lot like the sugar that you dump into your cake batter. Then you pour it into a weapons system like a cake pan and it’s ready to go.”
“I’m not one who really sat down and thought about how to move forward in the world,” AtienzaMoore reflects. “For me it’s the journey, not how fast you get there.
“I’ve always been focused on the job at hand. I was fortunate to have managers who made sure that I stayed on track and focused, but gave me the opportunity to succeed or fail at whatever I wanted to take on.”
About 1990 she followed her mentors’ example and moved into management. First she was a branch head in the explosives area, then a project manager, now engineering sciences division head. “It’s a little less hands-on,” she says, “but I have the opportunity to live vicariously through our new kids, who are doing really good work.
“I spend a fair bit of time working with new engineers and chemists. I’m trying to do exactly what my old branch heads and division heads did for me: give a little guidance but let them feel free to succeed and fail.”
The new crop includes a lot of bright new talented women ChEs and MEs, she says. In fact, China Lake has an excellent diversity cross-section among its civilian techies. “We are a little international forum here,” she says.
AtienzaMoore enjoys life at China Lake. It’s like a small, family-focused town. “Everyone who lives here is connected to the operation,” she says – including her husband. “He’s a computer scientist, protecting our information technology assets from viruses and hackers,” she notes.
“It’s ten minutes from my bed to my office, and I do challenging, worthwhile technical work that I love. There’s not much more one could ask for from a job.”
Sometimes the young professional women in the rotation program come to her with questions. “I’ve tried to emphasize that you need to be focused and prepared for new challenges,” she says. “That’s where you show management that you are up to taking on new work and advancing.”
“A hundred years ago, President Teddy Roosevelt said, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick.’ I like to think that what we’re doing is preparing a big stick that we’ll hopefully never have to use.”
The heady excitement of her energetics career doesn’t leave too much time for reflection, but AtienzaMoore has a somewhat philosophical take on the systems she works on. “We build a large number of weapons,” she says, “but hopefully we’ll never have to use them.
Kate Colborn & Pru Peterson