The Next Chapter

UW Tacoma Senior Lecturer Linda Dawson has helped launch space shuttles and a university. She's embarking on a new adventure as a professional author.

Dawson at Museum of Flight

UW Tacoma Senior Lecturer Linda Dawson will be the featured speaker at Yuri's Night, the Museum of Flight's celebration honoring cosmonaut Yuri Gregarin's first spaceflight in April 1961.

When: Saturday, April 15, 2017, 2-4 p.m.
Where: Museum of Flight, 9404 E. Marginal Way, Seattle
More information...
 

It’s more than a turn of phrase to say that Linda Dawson kept her head in the clouds and her feet on the ground. The UW Tacoma lecturer has spent a lifetime looking to the sky. “No matter where I lived I’d go to the airport and watch fighter jets or commercial planes,” said Dawson.

Flight, specifically the science behind it, has been an interest of Dawson’s since childhood. The youngest of three girls, Dawson grew up in Boston during the transformative 1960s. Her parents, both first-generation Americans, felt strongly about education and encouraged their children to attend college. “They wanted us to be independent and to have our own careers,” said Dawson.

In October of 1957 the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite—Sputnik—into space. “My family and I went to an observatory in New Hampshire where you could actually hear transmissions from Sputnik,” said Dawson. “You could hear the beep beep.”

Sputnik helped spark the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. It also fueled Dawson’s love of math and science. “There was a certain amount of danger and excitement involved that intrigued me,” she said.

Dawson in the Mission Control Center at NASA Houston circa 1980.Dawson committed herself to learning. In junior high and high school she loaded her schedule with science classes. She also got involved in science fairs and participated in at least one every year. Still, despite her passion, Dawson’s future options appeared to be limited. At the time women were not encouraged to pursue careers outside of the home.

A mix of timing, support and personal determination helped Dawson realize her full potential. One of Dawson’s teachers convinced her to apply to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She got into MIT and pursued a degree in aerospace engineering. The experience ended up being a positive one but Dawson had her reservations in the beginning. “In my graduating class there were thirty women and nine hundred men,” she said. “It took me a few years to settle in but things got better once I found people to study and socialize with.”

Dawson graduated from MIT and pursued a master’s degree in engineering through a program offered by George Washington University at the National Aeronautic & Space Administration’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. During her two years at NASA Langley, Dawson participated in research to improve stability and control characteristics for fighter jets. “I worked in a full-scale wind tunnel,” she said. “We collected data on aircraft and from that we could extract aerodynamic coefficients and using that information we could figure out how to design a better aircraft.”

After finishing graduate school, Dawson went to work for the aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney. She spent two years with the company before making the move to what she deemed her “ultimate job” at the NASA Space Center in Houston.

Dawson used data collected from this full-scale wind tunnel at the NASA Langley Research Center for her master's thesis on extracting aerodynamic coefficients from a free flying model.Dawson came to the space center in the late 1970s. She served as an aerodynamic flight controller for the agency’s burgeoning shuttle program. “Part of my job was to run through different flight scenarios to help develop rules and procedures,” said Dawson. The idea was to have a backup plan readily available in case of an emergency such as an engine failure. “In flight there isn’t a lot of time to actually think about the problem and suggest solutions so you needed to make all of your decisions beforehand,” she said. 

Dawson also helped develop the entry fuel budget for the first two space shuttle flights. This meant figuring out how much fuel would be needed for different parts of the mission and how to compensate for issues that might arise. “Let’s say a rocket got stuck and kept firing,” said Dawson. “That would use a lot more fuel and we’d have to budget for these kinds of anomalies to ensure everyone returned home safely.”

Dawson would often present her findings to others at NASA including mission astronauts. She says the environment was competitive but largely fair. There were exceptions. “I would sometimes sit in the back observation area and there would be a tour group that went through and people would ask if there was a woman in there,” said Dawson. “The tour guide would say ‘She’s probably an astronaut’s wife.’ ”

In 1981 Dawson decided to leave NASA. She landed at Boeing where she worked for five years as an engineer. “I worked on space concepts, mostly space defense, space-based lasers, said Dawson. The job suited Dawson’s interests, but wasn’t quite what she wanted anymore. “I’ve always been driven to teach,” she said. “Even when I worked at NASA I taught a night class at a community college.”

Dawson started at UW Tacoma not long after the university’s founding. She taught math but switched to science as the campus grew. “It’s been interesting and a lot of fun,” said Dawson. “I got to see this university develop.”

Dawson pictured at the high-speed wind tunnel circa 1972.This summer will mark the end of Dawson’s career at UW Tacoma. She plans to retire after teaching a course this summer on the history and science of space exploration. Dawson developed this class and many others including one devoted to women in science. Her legacy at UW Tacoma includes helping train future generations of scientists. “This has been a wonderful opportunity,” said Dawson. “Teaching is a way of connecting with other people.”

Dawson is retiring from one profession and starting another. She’s already penned one book on space. The Politics and Perils of Space Exploration came out earlier this year. She is under contract to write another book, this one on war and space. “I’ve been technically pigeonholed for decades and I’m still figuring out how to write,” she said.

Dawson’s perspective on space exploration seems to mirror her view on life. “The biggest thing for humans is to see that vast unknown,” she said. Dawson has spent a lifetime pushing boundaries, always with her eye to the sky and her feet on the ground.

Section: 
Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / April 13, 2017
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu