The UCLA Samueli School of Engineering celebrates alumni, faculty members and students annually with various awards. Jonathan Arenberg, a triple-Bruin, will receive the 2020 UCLA Samueli Professional Achievement Award for his accomplishments in the aerospace industry and his passion for sharing science with fellow Bruins and others.
Speaking with Jon Arenberg (B.S. ’83, M.S. ’85, Ph.D. ‘87), one has to wonder what keeps him going. His energy and enthusiasm are indefatigable, not to mention infectious.
As an undergraduate physics major and a UC Regents and Edward Dickson UCLA Alumni scholar, Arenberg was well on his way to get a doctorate in physics. Then fate intervened.
While interning at the aerospace company Hughes Aircraft, a job he took to pay his way through school, Arenberg fell in love with engineering. “I changed my graduate school applications from physics to engineering and, at the same time, I was also awarded a Hughes Fellowship. In the end, I decided to study engineering at UCLA. Aside from proposing to my wife, Alice, it was the best decision I have ever made,” said Arenberg, smiling widely.
“My advisor, Professor Oscar Stafsudd, took me on as his first and only theory student. His broad interests and enthusiasm made him one of my greatest inspirations. He not only helped sharpen my analytical skills, but also motivated me to follow in his footsteps.”
“When I first met Jon, my students were working on optically controlled devices. He showed interest in these devices and I asked him to look at the possibility of combining all four functions in a single device that had one input and three output channels,” shared Stafsudd, an electrical and computer engineering professor at UCLA Samueli School of Engineering. “In a few days, he came back to me with a numerical model for the 1-to-3 device and also a closed form model for a 1-to-infinity device. A student who starts a project and immediately expands it is a rare find!”
Arenberg earned a bachelor’s degree in physics, and master’s and doctoral degrees in engineering before establishing himself as a powerhouse in the aerospace industry for more than 30 years. He is currently chief engineer for Space Science Missions at Northrop Grumman, where he has worked since 1989. “My job is simple. I get to invent tomorrow and I get to do it every day,” he said, referring to his work that largely focuses on exploring the universe.
Arenberg contributed to the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, a space telescope that continues to uncover high-energy areas in the universe including black holes and supernovas. Launched in 1999, Chandra continues to send awe-inspiring images more than 20 years later that provide new understanding of how the universe works.
After Chandra’s success, Arenberg worked on a number of high-energy laser programs, and co-invented the Starshade, a new technology to reveal planets orbiting other stars.
The James Webb Space Telescope is one of the more recent programs in which Arenberg is involved. His roles include technology-development, leading the system-design team and, ultimately, serving as chief engineer. He has likened working on Webb to being in the middle of finals week — every week.
Once launched in 2021, the telescope will rewrite science textbooks. Its mission includes collecting light from the first stars and galaxies. A glimpse back to the beginning of time will no doubt reveal undiscovered wonders that will rewrite textbooks and inspire future scientists and engineers.
Arenberg has also taken part in more than 200 conference presentations and publications, as well as writing a book recently. He holds 14 U.S. and foreign patents in a wide array of technology, with additional patents pending.
Despite his outstanding career success, Arenberg maintains that topping the Professional Achievement Award could be difficult but remains excited about tomorrow’s challenges. “Receiving this award is gratifying and humbling. I am very proud to be recognized for my accomplishments — many of which made possible because I was on truly great teams,” he said.
Outside of work, Arenberg devotes countless hours sharing the marvels of science and engineering with senior government and corporate officials, as well as students of all ages around the world. He has even given a talk in Spanish, a language he can read but not speak.
Similarly, his commitment to UCLA has only grown through the years. “Because I had the grades and test scores, I was accepted to UCLA early through the High School Scholars Program. Ever since then, I have been a lifelong Bruin, and often visit campus to share my work,” Arenberg said. “I want future engineers to look at what we have accomplished and imagine how they can make the next huge leap.”