Eclipse 2017: Visiting with Astronaut Linda Godwin

Please join me in offering a warm welcome to Dr. Linda Godwin, who served as an astronaut and currently teaches at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by space, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to chat with her. If you want to hear more about Linda, check out the Ted Talk at the bottom of the interview.

I understand you majored in math and physics in college. What influenced you to follow the STEM path?

I always like Math and Science in high school and I give a lot of credit for that to my teachers.  My parents were also encouraging.

When I was young, I dreamed of becoming a lab technician, because I wanted to do research in a lab. Obviously, I didn’t follow that path. I know you grew up in a small town in Missouri, likely not surrounded by astronauts. What did you dream of being when you grew up?

I never did have a big plan.  I was very  interested in NASA when I was growing up as we followed the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo flights.  NASA seemed a very long way from where I lived however.

Who encouraged you to follow your dreams?

Somehow I just went through life selecting the next thing to do, which had me getting my BS in Physics and Math at Southeast Missouri State and then on to Mizzou for my PhD in physics – I guess I didn’t feel like I was done.  During that time I had no thought of being an astronaut until near the end of my graduate school time at MU.

You joined NASA in 1980. What made you decide to join the program? How did you end up on that path?

While I was in grad school at Mizzou, NASA announced they were going to hire astronauts for the space shuttle program and for the first time they intended to include women in this astronaut class.   The educational background requirement specified some field of science, engineering, or medicine, so I was eligible.  I did apply then but was not interviewed that year.  It turned out I needed another two years to finish my PhD anyway, and during that time I managed to scrape together some money by doing tutoring to take flying lessons.  When there was another change two years later, I applied again and made it to an interview week with NASA.  I did not get the astronaut job, but was offered a job with Flight Operations supporting missions in Mission Control which I accepted.  That work was good experience and I was accepted into a later astronaut class.

What was the culture in NASA like in 1980 for women? Did you have mentors? Have you served as a mentor to younger women coming into the program?

I cannot identify a mentor.   The culture was ok, probably better than many other places.  Women were also just started to work in mission control, but I had many female colleagues.

I’ve visited Johnson Space Center a couple of times, and am always awed by the campus and, in particular, Mission Control. Can you give us an idea of what it feels like to be in Mission Control during an active mission? (i.e., do you live on caffeine? what are the hours like? do you experience depression when it’s over?)

I began to develop my coffee habit in grad school and I would say that it carried over to the shifts in mission control.  Mission Control has many positions, but I only worked in the area that supported the payloads on the missions – the unique part that changed every time.  We would be assigned to work specific shuttle missions, and that include getting familiar with the payloads/experiments, arranging and scheduling operation working groups, plus other meetings -so lots of meetings, and were the interface to work on the crew procedures and get them published prior to missions.  We participated in the many hours of simulations from either a front room position in mission control or from a back room support room.  The actual mission support was always very busy and it was great to be a a part of the team.  I enjoyed the fact that there was a conclusion to these individual missions and there was always another one coming up.

Where were you and what were you doing when you found out you were going to be an astronaut on the Space Shuttle? How did your family take the news? Did you ever have any doubts or second thoughts?

I was in a meeting at NASA when I got a call I was selected to be in an astronaut class.   I’m sure my parents were a little worried about it but they supported me.  I did not ever have any second thoughts.

I’ve seen video of you on the Space Shuttle and I can’t even imagine what that would feel like. Can you give us mere mortals a glimpse into that life? Is there a particular memory that stands out?

A shuttle flight was very busy.  Each day was carefully planned.  Obviously the primary difference in working in a free-fall orbit around the Earth, where the space shuttles went and where space station is, is that everything seems weightless and floats which means tasks are a little more challenging and its as easy to lose items as they floated away.  Floating was awesome and there was a learning curve to moving around gracefully.  Looking at the Earth is one of the best memories.  Orbits were about 90 minutes so in that time, if there was a chance to look out a window, one would see a lot of water along with land masses and a sunrise and sunset every time around.  Often we were too busy to look out, but it was the best thing if there was time.

Some people are savers (me, included). I have souvenirs from every vacation I’ve ever been on, I think. Do you have any souvenirs from your astronaut days that are particularly meaningful?

There are many photos and video from all the missions – that is the best way to recapture those moments.

Ahem, that brings me to my next question – I understand your husband is also an astronaut? Were your dual demanding careers ever an issue? Any competitiveness between you?

It was very special that Steve and I both shared these NASA experiences together.  by the time we married he was finished flying on the shuttle and finished his NASA career continuing to fly as a research pilot in the Aircraft Operations Division in T-38’s and Gulfstreams.  I had two more missions on the shuttle after we married.  We each had 4 flights.   I lost him 3 years ago to cancer.

You participated in many experiments during your missions. Are there any that stand out in particular, perhaps that you think might have the biggest impact on the scientific community (or humanity, for that matter)?

I can’t pick just one.  Each was different and special.  STS-37 had Gamma Ray Observatory which we deployed on orbit and remained in orbit around the Earth for 9 years collecting gamma ray data, the more energetic wavelengths of light, providing information about intense astrophysical phenomenon in the universe.  STS-59 was a mission to learn about our own planet, STS76 went to the Russian Space Station which was extremely interesting and my last flight STS-108 docked with the International Space Station which I’m very glad I got to experience.

Now that you’ve retired from NASA, I understand you are a professor of physics. What do you think we can do, at the college level and beyond, to encourage women who want to work, research and teach in STEM fields?

I hope to encourage everyone to see that science is very interesting, even if it is not going to be their career, and we all need to understand the physics of our world.  I want young women to know they are equally capable to compete in these fields.  I use many of my NASA experiences to make this as interesting as possible.

There is talk about us returning to the moon, or preparing for a trip to Mars. What do you think the future holds, in terms of the space program?

This is very difficult to predict.  We can solve the technical problems, but budget and political issues are much more challenging.  I hope we go to Mars some day.  It will be very expensive and the Moon is much more achievable.

The eclipse is just around the corner and is being talked about everywhere. I’ve heard that NASA will be in Jeff City for the event. Do you keep in touch with folks at NASA, or ever go back for a visit?

I keep in touch with some and there are periodic reunions which I try to attend.

Last, but not least – Was it difficult returning to Earth, both literally and figuratively, after being an astronaut?

Literally, with missions of about a week, readapting is not too bad upon return.  It is, I am sure, more difficult for the astronauts returning from a 6-month stay on the space station.  I miss some of the experience of participating in the astronaut program, but life moves on and I like what I am doing now.

A lot of my readers are women, many who are struggling, clawing and digging to make their dreams come true (whatever those might be). Do you have any advice for a reader who may be gazing into the distance at that dream that calls to them?

Just keep going and take a step at a time.  As you can see from my story I had to apply several times before I became an astronaut.

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About Lori Robinett

Lori is a creative soul trapped in a paralegal’s body. As a child, she wrote pages and pages in longhand. As a teenager, she pounded away on a typewriter. As a college student, she learned about criticism (death to English Comp!). As an adult, she found her hours filled with work and parenting. Then, she rediscovered the joy of escaping into a world of her own creation. After all, it’s not illegal to write all those twisted things that pop into your head!

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