Pioneering Spirit

Mathematician and Statistician Ruth Lemon Novak BS'58, MS'60, HD'04 recounts "Hidden Figures"-era path through aerospace industry

Photo courtesy of Mary-Ann Muffoletto

From the Spring 2019 Edition of Discovery

On October 4, 1957, NBC Radio interrupted a broadcast of the World Series with the announcement: “Listen now for a sound that forevermore separates the old from the new,” followed by a bleating signal from space: “Beep-beep-beep.”

The simple, repeating A-flat tone emanated from Sputnik I, the world’s first human-made satellite. Launched into Earth’s orbit by the Soviet Union, its persistent chirp was a clarion call to startled audiences throughout the world, who never dreamed the U.S.S.R. would lead the charge into the final frontier.

Yet there it was. The Soviets’ launch not only blasted the beach ball-sized satellite into orbit, but ignited a fiercely competitive space race between global superpowers, laid the groundwork for today’s satellite-dependent society and fueled the imaginations of generations of budding scientists.

USU alumna Ruth Lemon Novak BS’58, MS’60, HD’04, was among those scholars. She was, at the time, in her senior year of undergraduate study, but she’d soon join the wave of young talent streaming into the U.S. aerospace industry. Novak would make her unique, indelible mark on efforts that, indeed, forevermore changed science and our view of the world.

early satellite
Replica of Sputnik I at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force’s Missile and Space Gallery in Dayton, Ohio. The launch of the satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957 sparked the space race. Photo courtesy National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

Home on the Dairy Farm

Novak was born in 1936 in rural Francis, a small farming community at the southern end of Utah’s Kamas Valley, to William and Grace Hortin Lemon. William was a dairy farmer and Grace taught remedial reading at the local elementary school.

“‘Gateway to the Uintas’ the Kamas Valley is called,” Novak says. “Francis was the metropolis with 650 people.”

“I worked in our large garden, put up hay and helped with the cows,” she says. “I was kind of a tomboy.”

While her father schooled his children in all the skills needed to run a successful farm, Novak’s mother, a graduate of the University of Utah, was a stickler for academics and envisioned a college education for each of her offspring.

Novak attended South Summit High School and earned a $100 4-H scholarship for her entry in the Utah State Fair.

“4-H was a big deal to us and we all participated,” she says. “My scholarship-winning entry included cooking and serving a complete meal.”

Becoming an Aggie

Novak followed her older siblings to Utah State University, boarding with her married sister and brother-in-law.

“My first major was art, but I soon concluded that I wasn’t much of an artist,” she says. “My brother-in-law, who was majoring in civil engineering, suggested I try a math class.”

Novak had liked math in high school, though her rural school offered only algebra and geometry.

Heeding her brother-in-law’s advice, she enrolled in a class taught by Professor Vance Tingey, head of the department. She was the only woman in the class; a position in which she’d find herself many times in the future.

“He was a real character and an entertaining teacher,” she recalls. “He mentored me and told me what a good career I could have with a degree in mathematics.”

Novak excelled in math, while participating in intramural basketball, volleyball, tennis and softball – just about every athletics opportunity offered to women in those days.

“This was well before Title IX and we had no intercollegiate competitions,” she says. “Our games and matches were just one-day events.”

Her coaches urged her to major in physical education, but Novak “didn’t want to be a P.E. teacher.”

“I love sports and I think they’re important to women,” she says. “Being involved in sports and physical activities builds confidence in women, but I chose to pursue math, with a physics minor, as my major.”

Novak was usually the lone woman in the class and, for the most part, “no one made a big deal about it.”

After all, she had worked and played alongside her brothers, as she grew up on the farm. She wasn’t intimidated by the odd glance or off-hand comment, though one encounter with a classmate sticks in her memory.

“A fellow in one of my classes commented one day, ‘You know, Ruth, you can’t feed a husband ‘xy to the square.’”

“That’s okay,” Novak calmly responded. “I’ll just feed him ‘pi.’”

Toward an Advanced Degree and a Career

In May 1958, as undergraduate commencement approached, Novak began to consider her options.

Ruth Novak at Hercules Bacchus Works
Ruth Novak at Hercules Bacchus Works in Magna, Utah, in the early 1960’s. Novak began her career as a statistician in Quality Assurance.

“I was looking for a job, but there were still some companies that wouldn’t even consider hiring a woman,” she says. “I was in a bit of a quandary.”

One day, as Novak studied job opportunities posted on the Math Department’s bulletin board in Old Main, Professor Neville Hunsaker happened by.

“He asked about my plans and I explained my situation,” she says. “He said, ‘How would you like to stay here? I’ll give you a fellowship to graduate school.’”

Novak gratefully jumped at the opportunity and spent the next two years studying with major professor Joe Elich, while earning a master’s degree in applied mathematics and statistics.

Novak taught lower division classes in algebra, trigonometry and geometry, usually looking into a sea of male faces, and helped professors grade papers. (One of Novak’s undergraduate and graduate classmates, incidentally, was USU Mathematics Professor Emeritus Larry Cannon.)

Two years made a difference.

“By this time, the space race had ramped up and opportunities in STEM fields were opening up to men and women,” Novak says.

Joining the Space Race

In 1960, Hercules Aerospace Corporation came recruiting to Utah State and Novak was ready.

“I didn’t really want to leave Utah and the timing was right, because Hercules, which was based on the East Coast, was expanding its Bacchus Works, west of Salt Lake City,” she says.

When Novak arrived on the Bacchus campus on the windswept foothills of the Oquirrh Mountains, she wasn’t sure where to go. Directed to the main administration building, a clerk glanced at the young woman, then shuffled through a notebook, searching unsuccessfully for Novak’s name.

“Hmm, who are you going to be a secretary for?” the clerk asked.

“I can’t type,” Novak replied.

Her name located and role sorted, Novak was assigned, as a statistician, to the company’s quality assurance department, and quickly dove into urgent assignments.

Headquartered in Delaware, Hercules Powder Company had been producing dynamite, black powder and nitroglycerin for the mining industry from Magna, Utah since 1913. But with the advent of the Space Age, Hercules quickly turned its focus to the development of propellant – packaged, explosive energy – to propel small rockets into, and beyond, the Earth’s atmosphere.

“The technology used glass-wound pressure vessels,” Novak says. “The Air Force was developing the Minuteman I, the first generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and Hercules got the contract to produce propellant for the upper stage of the three-stage engine.”

In the heady, space-race atmosphere, being a woman “wasn’t a hardship,” she says.

“Everyone was new and, at the time, there wasn’t a real hierarchy,” Novak remembers. “Not so much attention was paid to gender but, instead, who could do the job. I was recognized for what I did, not who I was.”

Within a year, Novak was promoted to a supervisory position and career advancements continued to follow. Heading into a new decade, she became department manager and, eventually, a program manager for the development of motors for the Pershing II missile system. She oversaw a team of scientists and engineers and was ultimately involved in almost every strategic weapons system – Polaris, Trident, Poseidon and more – in production at Hercules.

Working with both Army and Navy programs, Novak became manager and, subsequently, vice president of Navy program at Hercules, and was responsible for directing the Navy Fleet Ballistic Missile Programs. In 1987, she was named general manager of the Utah operation of the corporation, heading up all operations, ranging from strategic and space to science and technology, overseeing nearly 3,800 personnel.

Finding a Soulmate

As her career trajectory rose, Novak met the love-of-her-life, Phillip Novak, a Hercules engineer, Montana-born and son of a hard rock miner who’d immigrated to the United States from Slovenia. The couple, who shared a love of the outdoors and sports, married in 1966.

“Phil was considered an engineer’s engineer, because he could solve most problems and fix anything,” Novak says.

The pair enjoyed golf, exploring the great outdoors, camping in national parks, skiing in the Wasatch Mountains, fly-fishing in western rivers and hiking southern Utah’s red rock canyons (nurturing Novak’s keen interest in early civilizations of the American Southwest.) During retirement, they purchased Ruth’s childhood farm and enjoyed working in the open space. Phil succumbed to cancer in 2014.

Phillip and Ruth Novak
Photo courtesy Ruth Novak

As the Cold War Thawed

In the early 90s, as Germany reunified, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union crumbled, Novak, as vice president and general manager of Hercules Aerospace, was charged with supervising and implementing rules of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties at the company, which was turning its focus toward space exploration.

Novak notes that, during that time, Hercules was acquired by Orbital/ATK, which subsequently acquired Thiokol. Orbital/ATK was recently acquired by Northrup Grumman, she says, which “consolidates the rocket motor industry in Utah into one company.”

Novak has visited all of Utah’s national parks
A life-long hiker, Novak has visited all of Utah’s national parks and has a keen interest in the early civilizations of the American Southwest. Photo courtesy Ruth Novak

Novak and her husband Phil chose to retire in 1991, to pursue their many interests – especially in travel and outdoor recreation. But Novak was sought after for a number of boards and continued to serve the aerospace industry as a trusted board member and advisor to The Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California, which does engineering and technical oversight for the Air Force’s Missile and Space Programs, including the GPS system and reconnaissance satellites, as well as Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, a not-for-profit research and development organization headquartered near MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which does guidance and navigation for the nation’s missile and space programs.

“These board memberships were very interesting opportunities, especially with Draper Lab, as I witnessed the development of geographic positioning systems technology, among other innovations,” Novak says. “I went from ‘brawn to brains’ – that is, from propellants to guidance systems – and had the opportunity to become friends with some truly exceptional, visionary people.”

In 2004, at age 70, Novak says she “really retired,” but stayed on as Advisor Emeritus to Draper Laboratory.

She subsequently served on USU’s College of Science Advisory Board, where she advised deans and department heads on ways to prepare aspiring scientists for success in academic and professional pursuits.

Mentoring Underrepresented Groups

As a manager, Novak followed guidelines implemented under affirmative action laws passed in the 1970s.

“These new laws included sensitivity training to ensure women and other minorities were afforded equal opportunities,” she says. “I found I had biases, too, and worked to overcome them.”

In practice, Novak encouraged employees in lower-skilled, clerical positions to pursue math classes at a local community college.

“A number of these employees did very well in their studies and were eventually promoted to technical and supervisory positions,” she says. “We also made an effort to hire more women and minority engineers and scientists.”

Realizing that fostering advancement among women begins at an early age, Novak teamed with colleague Ann Erickson, dean of Salt Lake Community College, and several other women, to form the Utah Math/Science Network in 1980.

“Anne had been to a conference in California and learned of the national ‘Expanding Your Horizons (EYH)’ program,” Novak says. “She thought we should organize and annual EYH conference for Utah and our network was born.”

The premise of EYH, she says, is to recruit women professionals in the STEM fields to meet with middle and high school girls for an annual, one-day workshop.

Phillip and Ruth Novak hit the slopes.
Phillip and Ruth Novak hit the slopes. Together, the pair enjoyed many outdoor activities. Photo courtesy Ruth Novak

“We learned the teen years – especially the middle school years – are a critical time for girls in STEM,” Novak says. “Many drift away from math and science. The idea with the EYH gathering is to gather adult role models, who can mentor these young women and spark their interest in continuing their studies in math and science.”

EYH conferences have moved around the state’s university and college campuses, but they continue to this day, with the most recent conference, sponsored by Northrup Grumman (formerly Orbital/ATK), held in November 2018 at Salt Lake Community College and North Davis Junior High School in Clearfield, Utah. Keynote speaker was KUTV meteorologist Lindsay Storrs.

Envisioning Utah's Future

Beyond industry, Novak participated in the Utah Women’s Forum and The Coalition for Utah’s Future; the latter initiated by the late Utah Gov. Scott Matheson.

Novak indulges her passion for fly-fishing
Novak indulges her passion for fly-fishing. “Honesty, friendship and taking care of your physical health are extremely important,” she says. “And there’s not much better than golf: A healthy diet requires a lot of ‘greens.’”

“With the Utah Women’s Forum, I had the opportunity to meet a lot of women I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” she says. “Networks like these are valuable for women. We keep thinking that’s everything’s okay, but women are still only making 70 percent of the money that men do in the same profession. So, there’s still a need for women to organize and support one another.”

With The Coalition for Utah’s Future, Novak explored, with other concerned Utahns, long-range solutions for the state’s challenges.

“One of the big problems we worked on was transportation and those efforts contributed to the development of the light-rail TRAX system,” she says. “The coalition has evolved into Envision Utah, which is looking at our communities and planning for dealing with population growth and urbanization. It’s one of the most interesting organizations I’ve ever belong to.”

For herself and others, Novak espouses the same values and habits she learned growing up in Francis.

“Honesty, friendship and taking care of your physical health are extremely important,” Novak says. “And there’s not much better than golf: A healthy diet requires a lot of ‘greens.’”


By Mary-Ann Muffoletto

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