Former Space Shuttle Engineer Explores the Politics of Space
Slice of MIT
Linda (Getch) Dawson ’71 grew up during the height of the space race between the United States and the USSR. She recalls driving with her family from Massachusetts to a New Hampshire observatory to hear the beeping of the Soviet satellite Sputnik as it passed overhead. “It’s funny how your path takes different turns, but I always came back to that first love: aerospace,” she says. Dawson’s path took her from MIT to NASA, then into a second career as a teacher and a writer, earning her the nickname “Rocket Woman” from colleagues and journalists along the way.
Dawson says her “most exciting job ever” as an aerospace engineer was working as an aerodynamic flight controller at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. It was the late ’70s, and she was in the navigation and guidance mission control group responsible for ensuring that the Space Shuttle safely reentered the atmosphere. She ran “endless simulations with astronauts and pilots” to determine exactly how much fuel would be needed for the flight. She was on duty in mission control during launch and reentry, running yet more simulations to define and redefine the shuttle’s flight rules based on different conditions and failures. “When you’re flying at supersonic and hypersonic speeds, everything happens so quickly that you don’t have the luxury of looking through a book to see what you should do if something goes wrong,” she says with a laugh.
When you’re flying at supersonic and hypersonic speeds, everything happens so quickly that you don’t have the luxury of looking through a book to see what you should do if something goes wrong.
After NASA and a stint at Boeing Aerospace, Dawson spent more than 20 years as a senior lecturer at the University of Washington Tacoma. There she had the freedom to design her own courses, including Women in Science and the History and Science of Space Exploration. Creating the syllabus for her space class, however, “I couldn’t find a reasonable book that satisfied what I thought should be covered in a condensed fashion—it either was too technical or it was a children’s book,” she recalls. So Dawson decided to write her own: She has published two books, The Politics and Perils of Space Exploration (Springer, 2017, with a second edition out this year) and War in Space (Springer, 2018). The books describe the history of the space program and delve into the complicated modern-day politics of space exploration as different companies and countries compete for access and resources.
Retired from teaching, Dawson continues to write and also lectures at the Seattle Museum of Flight, where she is a longtime volunteer. “At the museum there are whole new generations of young people who still want to take rocket classes and learn about space,” she says. “It’s exciting to see that.”
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