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Astronauts land MU faculty positions

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Photos by Shane Epping and courtesy of NASA
  • Published: Oct. 13, 2011
Linda Godwin and Steven Nagel

Retired astronauts Steven Nagel and Linda Godwin explore the observatory on top of MU's Physics Building. Godwin, the second woman to earn a PhD in physics at Mizzou, teaches an introductory astronomy course. Nagel, her husband, will teach aerospace propulsion in the College of Engineering next semester.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to boost the value of science education at a university. As Tigers are discovering, though, it can help to have one or two around.

In the wake of the NASA space shuttle program’s final flight, Mizzou has added two astronauts to the university’s science faculty. This semester Mizzou alumna Linda Godwin, MS ’76, PhD, ’80, is teaching an introductory astronomy course. Next semester her husband, fellow retired NASA astronaut Steven Nagel, will teach an aerospace propulsion course, supplementing his duties as a retention specialist in MU’s College of Engineering.

Each has flown on a space shuttle mission four times (once together, pre-couplehood). Both boast NASA careers that span the 30-year shuttle program. Neither makes a big deal out of being among only 523 humans to have traveled to space.

“Just because you’re an astronaut doesn’t make you smarter than other people,” Nagel claims.  He shrugs off local-media attention and reports of his autograph sales on eBay. Godwin balks at being listed with Jon Hamm and Sheryl Crow among Mizzou’s celebrity alumni. 

“Linda is obviously really keen but in this very understated way,” professor and Director of Astronomy Angela Speck says about her colleague. “She’s just so very, very calm. She’s also extremely approachable, and that’s important in the classroom.”

Students enrolled in the astronauts’ classes needn’t panic about being in over their heads. Instruction may more closely resemble the couple’s work in outreach (bringing science to the masses) than their work as NASA trainers (prepping astronauts for space). Above all, these professors want their students, whatever their career choices, to understand the scientific process and to become informed citizens.

“They’re going to be living in a country where policy decisions are made about how we spend money on our future research and science, so we’re hoping to give them a little perspective,” Godwin says of her pupils. “Even if they’re not the ones who do scientific work, their tax money may be going to fund those who do.”

Enjoying the view

Linda Godwin and Steven Nagel

Steven Nagel and Linda Godwin take in the view of campus. The couple relocated to Columbia with their daughter in July, after working for NASA in Houston for three decades. "I think it keeps you a little younger when you work with students," says Godwin, now a professor of astronomy.

Lessons might be peppered with exciting anecdotes. Godwin has not only flown in but also stepped out of the space shuttle — twice — becoming the fourth woman to walk in space. Nagel, who maintains a lifelong love of being airborne, flew jets in the U.S. Air Force before joining NASA. On his second space shuttle mission, he piloted the Challenger — the vessel’s last flight before it broke apart in liftoff in 1986. Both say that though they grieved over the loss of colleagues in the Challenger tragedy, they were not deterred from their career choices. Safety is always an issue; space travel is inherently fraught with peril.

With significant risk, though, comes significant reward.

“The missions were like these great adventures,” Nagel says, “like a very elaborate and well-planned camping trip, like the best vacation you ever took — except you’re not on vacation; you’re working real hard while you’re up there."

Godwin concurs that the highly complex work — assimilating countless hours of training and preparation into one short, focused trip — leaves little time for poetic pontification.

“When you have to make yourself pause and you actually look around, you can see some part of the space station with Earth in the background,” Godwin says, describing her spacewalks. “You can see that from inside the station or the shuttle, but to be out there in your own space suit and looking at it — it’s pretty awesome.”

Women in space


Astronauts Linda Godwin (right) and Dan Tani (left) during a spacewalk in December 2001. The space shuttle Endeavor mission marked Godwin's fourth shuttle flight and her second spacewalk.

The modest Godwin resists the term “pioneer” in reference to the role she has played in paving the way for women in the field of astrophysics and at NASA. She wasn’t the first female astronaut; she was among the first dozen. She wasn’t the first woman to earn a PhD in physics at Mizzou; she was the second.

“I was never quite at the forefront; I would look around, and there would be other women doing what I was doing,” Godwin says about working in a profession dominated by men. At the time she applied to NASA, while working on her PhD, the agency had just begun recruiting women for the astronaut program; Godwin was in the fourth class of female recruits. “I do appreciate that other people fought those battles and made it easier for us. Now hopefully it’s all just taken for granted.”

Speck points out that in the past when women made breakthroughs in physics and astronomy research — Henrietta Swan Leavitt with period-luminosity relationship in the 1890s, Jocelyn Bell with pulsars in the 1960s — their male professors got the credit and, in some cases, the Nobel Prize. Though the playing field is more level now, a dearth of women and girls tackling scientific exploration persists, and Speck hopes that through outreach programs Godwin, a native of Jackson, Mo., can inspire young scholars throughout Missouri.

“In some of the rural communities in Missouri kids aren’t getting interactions with scientists as a regular thing,” Speck says. “We want to just let them see there are all these women doing this.”

“I want them all to know they can do it, and it is interesting,” Godwin says.

Speck also anticipates that Godwin’s presence will elevate the recognition of MU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy as a place to get, well, a stellar astronomy education. Godwin’s career is a testament to the program’s job-preparation effectiveness, and her faculty position is a rare and valuable asset for students. In addition to supporting Godwin’s contributions, the department has been taking innovative approaches to coursework. Buoyed by Mizzou Advantage funding, postdoctoral fellow Lanika Ruzhitskaya and professors are developing a new course about the energy crisis, and the department is exploring ways to increase the appeal and comprehensibility of complex scientific concepts by incorporating science fiction films into courses. 

End of an era

Now retired from NASA and back on terra firma in America’s heartland, Godwin and Nagel reflect on their experiences in the space shuttle program — and at NASA as a whole — with an emphasis on camaraderie. What they miss most: their dedicated colleagues. A pervasive lesson from the program: that collaboration yields great accomplishments. 

“The space station stands out as one of the biggest peace-time internationally cooperative ventures ever done,” Nagel says. “It proved that if given the right set of circumstances, countries can work together to do things that are peaceful. If we can harness that cooperation in other endeavors … it would be a great thing.”

Without the shuttle, all of the world’s astronauts currently are dependent on Russia for space travel. Last month NASA announced plans to develop a new space launch system (SLS) rocket program, with unmanned test flights estimated to begin in 2017. It could be years, if not decades, before a U.S. agency takes people into space again.

Meanwhile, multiple private companies have begun developing commercial space programs, through which paid trips to Earth orbit — space tourism — might help offset the costs of scientific missions and support for the space station. Nagel and Godwin envision a future in which their own daughters, ages 11 and 22, see space travel as a possibility within reach. 

“It would be great if my daughters’ generation could some time in their lifetime be able to go to space, just because they wanted to go,” Godwin says. “That would be a dream.”

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Last updated: June 6, 2013