Logo: University of Southern California

Continuing Sally Ride's Legacy

Desiree Webster-Zuber, along with her colleagues at the USC Rocket Lab, are planning to make history when they launch their custom-built rocket Traveler this fall. The team hopes to become the first university to get to space.
Stephanie Shimada
June 19, 2013 —
Thirty years ago, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space

This week marks two significant milestones for women in space. In 1983, Sally Ride, a 32-year-old crewmember on the space shuttle Challenger, became the first American woman in space. Fifty years ago, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space.

These milestones continue to inspire the next generation of women in the astronautical engineering program at USC Viterbi today.

One student poised to carry on Ride’s legacy is USC Viterbi astronautical engineering student Desiree Webster-Zuber (BS ’13, entering MS).

Webster-Zuber, who recently received the USC AME Department’s Laufer Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Senior Design, has a dream of one day designing propulsion systems and motors for rockets.

She is one of a growing number of women in the astronautical engineering field.

“Ride’s flight had a big influence on recruiting women to science and engineering in general,” said Dan Erwin, chair of the USC Viterbi Department of Astronautical Engineering.

USC is the only American university that offers degrees at all levels (bachelor’s master’s and doctoral) in astronautical engineering. When Erwin first began teaching in the 1980s, the program had 10 to 15 percent women. By contrast, this year’s graduating class was about 50 percent, more than any other engineering field in the school, Erwin said.

USC Viterbi student Desiree Webster-Zuber

Webster-Zuber’s passion for astronautical engineering was first ignited almost by chance in high school, when she attended the John Hopkins University – Center for Talented Youth (JHU-CTY) event hosted at Arizona State University. At this gathering, the keynote speaker showed images from the Hubble telescope, including planets, stars, nebulae and galaxies. These pictures awed and inspired Webster-Zuber. She decided to pursue a career involving space.

The stars aligned for Webster-Zuber shortly thereafter, when she met USC alumnus and friend Sarah Hester (BS ’12) at COSMOS, a camp held annually at the University of California, Irvine. It was Hester who encouraged Webster-Zuber to join the USC Rocket Lab, a student-run organization that designs and builds rockets, which would become a highlight of her undergraduate career.

“You can take courses at any school. You can read the pages and really learn the material. But the fact that USC has opportunities to get extremely hands-on with things that you can’t normally get involved with is something that I think is fantastic,” Webster-Zuber said.

She has excelled in the Rocket Lab. Though one of the only actively involved women in the organization, she has not hesitated to take on leadership roles, including propulsion lead and lab manager.

In September, Webster-Zuber and her Rocket Lab colleagues will launch their custom-built rocket, Traveler, in the Mojave Desert. Their goal: send their rocket beyond the Von Karman line and into space.

Webster-Zuber's Rocket Lab participation has opened the door to other honors as well. During her senior year, she received an invitation to compete in the AIAA Region VI Student Paper Conference for a strand burner she built for one of the Lab’s rockets.

While women are more likely to take on leadership roles in the field today, this has not always been the case. Through the 1990s, Erwin frequently had women coming up to him with concerns about feeling like outsiders in the program. Now, Erwin sees more women take on leadership roles than their male counterparts.

Webster-Zuber is still trying to pinpoint exactly what role she would like to play in the industry. Ideally, she would like to work in a hands-on position designing rocketry or satellites.

“It makes a big difference when the engineers can actually design something, fabricate something, and actually touch it,” Webster-Zuber said.

With the closure of the NASA shuttle program, the future looks different for the next Sally Ride, but Webster-Zuber believes it will only help the industry. She thinks it will help spur competition among smaller companies, and increase the number of companies wanting to get to space.

This summer, Webster-Zuber is gaining further expertise in rocketry as a propulsion engineer for Nev.-based Digital Solid State Propulsion

“I am excited for the future” Webster-Zuber said. “Competition promotes you to do your best, and do it as efficiently as possible. It promotes companies to step up their game and work harder, especially since they are limited by their funding.”

Webster-Zuber is not only USC Viterbi alumna following in Ride's footsteps.

Others include Webster-Zuber’s friend Hester, a national science foundation graduate research fellow at Purdue University; Sarah Thomas, founding member of the USC Rocket Lab and propulsion production engineer at SpaceX; and Anita Sengupta, project manager, astronomy and physics directorate, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Beyond opening the field up to women, Ride’s legacy has given women like Webster-Zuber the confidence to pursue their dreams.

“If she can do it, I can do it,” Webster-Zuber said.