Trailblazer of the Week

Sue Linch

25 November 2020

For Sue Linch, the sky’s the limit. She grew up in Montana, the Big Sky State, and has been looking up ever since.

“I have been blessed to have a career that has included many deep space exploration spacecraft,” says Linch, who is the Lockheed Martin (LM) Engineering Lead overseeing the engineering teams’ assembly of the Lunar Trailblazer spacecraft. “However, when I was seven years-old, I knew I wanted to go to the Moon. This is my first time to get to be a part of a mission that will do just that—a childhood dream realized.”

After spending her first twelve years in Montana, Linch graduated from high school in Kellogg, Idaho, right in the middle of the Panhandle. Growing up she received both support and discouragement for wanting to be an engineer, but ultimately proved negative feedback can become pure fuel.

“I had a third grade teacher, Tia Kober, who encouraged me to dream big and to keep reading and dreaming,” she recalls. “Engineering—rather than science—was solidified for me after I had a high school guidance counselor tell me I would never make it in engineering.”

Linch is now the lead of Trailblazer’s mechanical and electrical spacecraft engineering teams. She has some advice for those who have also had unsolicited doubt cast on their dreams.

“Never give up,” says Linch. “I’m here because I listened to my incredible family, educators, and other advocates telling me I could be what I wanted to be. Believe those people and let them help you believe in yourself. Your education is often what you make of it, and you can build a network of the people who will cheer you on. If you work on something you are passionate about, it is worth the effort to get there.”

After high school, Linch went on to earn a civil engineering degree from the University of Idaho (UofI), and a mechanical engineering MS from George Washington University’s Joint Institute for Advancement of Flight Sciences at NASA Langley. Her determination only grew with strong mentorship.

“My first advisor at UofI was Margrit Von Braun, who guided me in the civil and mechanical route on my way to space while showing me what a very strong person looks like,” recalls Linch. “I also credit Ed Schmeckpeper for my love of material science and destructive testing, and for being one of the most inspiring teachers to keep me in engineering.”

After stints through dynamics analysis, design and test, thermal protection systems design and test, Linch found a home in aeroshells and dedicated herself to engineering entry capsules.

“Breaking, burning, and entry are perfect outlets for an adrenaline junkie!” Linch says. “I took a new challenge to do systems engineering for NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) on the advice from one of my favorite mentors, Steve Jolly, that weather is a noble pursuit. For this position on Trailblazer, I remembered my love of hardware, and am drawing on every bit of my systems engineering experience to make it work.”

Linch is excited her team will support Lunar Trailblazer in mapping lunar water for future resource utilization.

“Lunar water enables so many things in human exploration including sustaining a base that can grow and provide its needs, through avenues like manufacture of fuels and plant growth,” she says. “I believe Lunar Trailblazer is as much about building an agile team that truly functions well and enables breakthroughs towards this goal.”

There are actually several teams Linch must oversee as engineering lead, and the different elements of each have collectively become the favorite part of her role.

“The teams I get to interact with are the greatest joy in my job,” she says. “We have international and cross-country team members for an amazing diversity that shows true collaboration to do something challenging and worthwhile against a lot of odds. The integrity and energy of our LM hardware team is palpable.”

With so many teams and aspects to the mechanical assembly of the Trailblazer spacecraft, no single day is like another for Linch.

“For Class D missions like Trailblazer, that means I look into removing roadblocks for my team for analyses, tools, procurements, schedule, hardware developments, issues, and processes, so my day is always varied,” she explains. “The team has purview into the integrity of the procured and produced hardware, so a typical day will have me involved in troubleshooting the latest issue and interacting with members of the team all day, as well as other centers and subcontractors. I also get to push the envelope daily on how to be more agile.”

Linch certainly strives for agility outside of work, too. In addition to traveling and hiking, she loves to go biking, and played golf at UofI. Having also played volleyball all the way through high school and college, Linch now takes time to coach middle school teams. It’s quality time with family, though, that keeps her moving.

“Any time I have, I’m out on a bike or on two feet exploring trails with my family,” she says. “I have two amazing teenagers who teach me something new every day, and a talented artist husband who fills my visual world with far more beauty than my utilitarian brain would dream up.”

If her days weren’t busy enough, Linch is also actively encouraging the next generation of scientists. Ignoring her own high school guidance counselor’s disparaging remarks and pursuing her engineering ambitions has made Linch a model of a mentor for high school students considering a career in STEM.

“I work with a lot of high school interns,” says Linch. “They are inspiring me to be my best every day to drive innovation. I cannot wait to influence their career and help ensure that space exploration is as amazing and meaningful to them as it has been to me!”

Sue Linch is the Lockheed Martin Engineering Lead for Lunar Trailblazer and she’s our Trailblazer of the Week!

Trailblazer of the Week is an ongoing series showcasing the diversity of experience and expertise that supports the collective determination of the Lunar Trailblazer mission.

By Emily Felder
Emily Felder is a Pasadena City College student and Caltech intern working on science communication for the Lunar Trailblazer mission.