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Winter 1999-2000
Vol. 62, No. 2

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Laryssa Sharvan Densmore '83: "If you had told me that I would someday be a rocket scientist, I would have laughed right along with my classmates."

It shouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that there's a bit of a disconnect between modern technology and old-fashioned superstition.

But that's just what a bunch of Russian rocket scientists couldn't do when Laryssa Sharvan Densmore '83 joined their team.

Although Densmore was launch operations manager for the project they were working on--the first-ever launch of an American satellite from a Russian rocket--she was amazed to learn from her teammates that she was being banned from the launch pad at its send-off. The reason, they explained, was simple: As a woman, her presence at the site would be very bad luck.

She did get to the pad--thereby creating another in a string of firsts--but it took a bit of negotiating.

Not that it fazed her. As one of only four women in her Rochester graduating class with a B.S. in mechanical engineering, she was used to being something of a trendsetter.

However, she says, she little suspected at that point how much of a pioneer she'd be in a field that she had never planned for.

"If you had told me then that I would someday be a rocket scientist, I would have laughed right along with my classmates," she says.

She's entitled to the last laugh however, having made a successful career for herself in a field that for most people represents the far reaches of human understanding.

Over the past 15 years, Densmore has worked for the biggies --TRW Space and Defense, McDonnell Douglas, and Lockheed Martin--gaining exposure to all parts of the satellite business, from ground-station tracking, to satellite and rocket fabrication, to launch. It was that last--the launch--she says, that "completely captured my interest."

Couple this experience with her understanding of Russian culture and language (her father was Ukrainian), and she was a natural fit for a groundbreaking mission that took her in March of 1995 to Baikonur, Kazakhstan, for a three-year tour of duty.

The assignment was part of a Russian-American project aimed at using a Cold War stockpile of Russian rockets to launch American-made commercial satellites instead of H-bombs.

As the person responsible for all American-Russian joint operations, Densmore became the first-ever female launch-operations manager in the United States. And on top of that, also the first female engineer from Lockheed Martin to work with the Russians on what was to be the aforementioned first launch of an American satellite on a Russian rocket.

A mission setting so many precedents also posed plenty of unforeseen challenges--like the incident of the launch pad.

Unbelieving at first, Densmore quickly realized that her Russian teammates were all too serious about the ban. Some deft negotiating finally got her to the scene. And when the launch turned out to be a roaring success, Densmore's luck rating soared, too: She was invited to tour the Soyuz pad at Area 31 prior to one of the unmanned launches by the Russian Space Force--thereby becoming the first American, male or female, to set foot on the complex.

After examining the Russian space program up close and personal, Densmore addresses a common American misconception.

"If the Russians appear to be substandard in their space program," she says, "it can only be blamed on the distribution of funds within their government, not on their technical expertise."

Although Densmore received two President's Awards from Lockheed Martin for her mission in Baikonur, she says she would take a pass on the chance to do it again.

She'd rather take on new challenges, like her current assignment.

Now in Denver, she is, she explains crisply, "overseeing the Statistic Process Control Organization for the rocket and satellite builds there and supporting production operations."

But the Baikonur mission will remain, she says, "an experience of a lifetime." As she remarked in her farewell toast to the Russian colonels at a post-launch banquet: "Satellites come, satellites go. Rockets come, rockets go.

"But the friendships that were made between the Russians and Americans during this mission will never fade."

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