She's spent the last 20 years exploring the solar system, but space scientist Dr. Linda Bies Spilker of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory returns home to Yorba Linda this week to be inducted into the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District's Hall of Fame.
The Hall of Fame program is set for Thursday, April 15, at 7 p.m. at the district's Educational Services Center, 4999 Casa Loma Ave., Yorba Linda.
Spilker, who attended Placentia-Yorba Linda public schools from elementary through her 1973 graduation from Valencia High School, was selected for her remarkable scientific career. She has held key roles on major space science missions that have explored four of the nine planets and their many moons. She is currently the deputy project scientist on JPL's Cassini mission to Saturn, which is guiding a robotic spacecraft to enter orbit around the ringed planet in 2004.
"I got a telescope when I was in the third grade, looked at Jupiter and other planets, and that really got me hooked on science," said Spilker. "Alan Shepherd, John Glenn and the walk on the Moon got me dreaming about being part of the space program." She now specializes in the study of planetary rings, like those of Saturn, and the intriguing moons of the outer planets. The Cassini mission will return a wealth of data about Saturn's rings and moons, especially the large moon Titan which is thought to resemble a frozen, primordial Earth.
Though some counselors tried to steer her away from science and toward more traditional women's careers, such as teaching or nursing, some teachers gave her tools that she would use as a scientist. "My trigonometry teacher, Joy Appleby, really encouraged me in math, and my speech and debate coach John Denike encouraged me in public speaking, which has helped me explain space science and planetary exploration to all kinds of audiences." Both teachers are still teaching high school in the district.
Most important, Spilker said, was encouragement from her parents, Bonnie and Art Bies, who reside in Yorba Linda. They gave her the same advice she now gives to younger people, she said. "Be sure and follow your dream," Spilker says. "That's what will lead to your most rewarding career."
After earning her bachelor's degree in physics in 1977 from Cal State Fullerton, Spilker worked as a research assistant at the California Institute of Technology, helping to study meteorite samples to learn more about the birth of the solar system.
Later that year, Spilker joined the team of scientists and engineers who flew the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft on their historic explorations of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. As with several women colleagues on the Voyager team, Spilker timed the births of her two daughters, Jennifer and Jessica, to occur in the four-year "downtime" period when the Voyager 2 spacecraft was traveling between the planets Saturn and Uranus. During that time, she also earned her master's degree in physics from California State Los Angeles in 1983, and later completed her doctorate in geophysics and space physics at UCLA with highest honors in 1992. Her husband, Dr. Tom Spilker, is also a JPL scientist working on the Cassini mission.
Spilker is the recipient of numerous awards, including NASA's Exceptional Service Medal and the agency's Scientific Achievement Award for her work on the Voyager mission, and Distinguished Alumna Award for Natural and Social Sciences from Cal State Los Angeles. Spilker and her family reside in Monrovia.
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