When Joanne Maguire was growing up in a family with 12 children during the 1960s, her mother and father didn’t play favorites. Everybody had to pitch in on doing the laundry and the dishes, and the kids decided among themselves what to watch on television or who got to sit by the window in the car. Her father was an aerospace engineer at the Pratt & Whitney unit of United Technologies (then United Aircraft), and all of his children were expected to live up to the same standards of excellence in their academic and private lives.
Apparently the peculiar combination of compromise and assertiveness required to thrive in such a family environment paid off in later life, because last week Joanne Maguire became the first woman to win one of the most prestigious awards that the aerospace community has to offer. The International von Karman Wings Award has been given to an aerospace pioneer every year since 1985 by CalTech’s Aerospace Historical Society, and the roster of past winners amounts to a pantheon of the men who shaped the global aerospace business. Now it has welcomed a woman to its ranks.
Given the way she grew up, Maguire probably thinks the fact she is a woman is beside the point. Her record of accomplishment at Lockheed Martin Space Systems — and its Northrop Grumman counterpart before that — is unsurpassed by any other executive in the modern defense industry. It’s hard to describe that record in detail, because much of it is classified. Suffice it to say that her business unit has set the standard for others to follow in spy satellites, communications and navigation spacecraft, human spaceflight, strategic missiles and interplanetary exploration. And the achievements weren’t just technological: in the seven years since Maguire came to the space unit, she has repeatedly wrested business away from competitors, reasserting Lockheed Martin’s dominance of the domestic space sector.
Today, the 18,000 people who work under Joanne Maguire are the single most accomplished repository of space experience and expertise in the world, and a key factor in America’s continuing status as the world’s sole superpower. So it isn’t surprising that the woman who leads this unique team has now achieved another first in winning the von Karman award. Hungarian-born Theodore von Karman was an aerospace pioneer who distinguished himself with scientific breakthroughs at CalTech in the 1930s and 1940s, then was instrumental in establishing both the Jet Propulsion Lab and the Aerojet Company. You don’t get an award named after von Karman unless you are somebody really special.
It is interesting to note that most of the major business units at Lockheed Martin are run by women. That has never happened before in the defense industry of any nation, and only a generation ago it would have seemed quite unlikely even in America. But Joanne Maguire is emblematic of a sea change in the American economy that has unfolded since Ronald Reagan became President in 1981. All of the traditional barriers to merit-based advancement — gender, race, etc. — are being swept away by market forces that reward those who perform. There is nowhere else in the world where merit weighs so heavily in a person’s success, and Joanne Maguire is proof that the American system still works well.
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