“Rocket Woman”: from space shuttle engineer to space historian


Linda (Getch) Dawson ’71 grew up during the height of the US-USSR space race. She remembers driving her family to an observatory to hear the beep of the Soviet satellite Sputnik as it passed overhead. “It’s funny how your path takes different turns, but I’ve always come back to that first love: aerospace,” she says. Dawson’s journey took her from MIT to NASA and then into a second career as a teacher and writer, earning her the nickname “Rocket Woman” from her colleagues and journalists.

UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON, TACOMA

Dawson says his “most exciting job ever” in aerospace was working as an aerodynamic flight controller at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. It was in the late 1970s, and she was part of the Navigation and Guidance Mission Control Group tasked with ensuring the space shuttle entered the atmosphere safely. She performed “endless simulations with astronauts and pilots” to determine the amount of fuel needed for the first flight, which represents the most critical failures. She was on mission control duty during launch and reentry, running even more simulations to define and redefine the shuttle flight rules as conditions changed. “When you’re flying at supersonic and hypersonic speeds, everything happens so fast that you don’t have the luxury of flipping through a book to see what to do if something goes wrong,” she says. She left NASA long before the Challenger and Columbia disasters showed how dangerous human spaceflight can be, but she will share her take on these tragedies years later in her first book.

After NASA and a stint at Boeing Aerospace, Dawson spent more than 20 years as a lecturer at the University of Washington, Tacoma, where she designed courses on Women in Science and on History and science of space exploration. But, she said, “I couldn’t find a [space] book that fulfilled what I thought should be covered in a condensed way – it was either too technical or it was a children’s book. So Dawson decided to write his own. The politics and dangers of space exploration (Springer, 2017, with a second edition this year) and Space war (Springer, 2018) tell the story of the space program and delve into the complex modern politics of space exploration as different companies and countries compete for access and resources.

Retired from teaching, Dawson continues to write and lecture at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, where she is a long-time volunteer. “At the museum, there are whole new generations of young people who still want to take rocket lessons and learn more about space,” she says. “It’s exciting to see that.



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