For Linda Godwin, getting into a space shuttle is a lot like getting into a car.
“In general, nobody thinks that anything is going to happen on their launch day,” she said. “Like when you get in a car, you don’t think, ‘Well, I know in Missouri there’s going to be a lot of car wrecks today.’ You don’t go in thinking, ‘It’s probably going to happen to me.’ You just don’t think it’s going to.”
Godwin, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, has been on four different missions into space through the NASA astronaut program.
She said she first applied to become an astronaut during graduate school while she was working towards her doctorate in physics at MU.
When Godwin applied, NASA had just began actively recruiting women for the space shuttle program. Since recruiters were looking for applicants with backgrounds in areas such as science, engineering, medicine and technology, Godwin said she felt she definitely had the qualifications to apply for the program — and be slightly competitive.
Although she did not get selected at first, Godwin said she was offered another position.
“Later, they had another selection for the astronaut program, and that year I applied and got an interview in Houston at the Johnson Space Center,” Godwin said. “While they didn’t offer me the astronaut job at that time, they did offer me a job to come down and work for them, so I definitely took that offer out of grad school, then got in a later class of astronauts while I was down there.”
It wasn’t until five years after she began working for NASA that Godwin said she finally got accepted into the astronaut program.
Before this, Godwin worked for an area in the shuttle program.
“I supported the earlier days of the shuttle program from what we call the ‘payloads area,’” she said. “All the systems on the shuttle were divided up into a whole different group of names, but our area was the stuff that changed out every mission that was different.”
Overall, each of Godwin’s four flight missions have included very different tasks.
For her first flight, the mission was to deploy an astronomical observatory looking at gamma rays.
In later missions, Godwin worked on flights that docked with the Russian Space Station and also the International Space Station. These missions normally involved bringing and returning crew and supplying hardware.
Between flight missions, Godwin said she stayed very busy working on other aspects of the program.
“During the time in between, we’d have training in the simulator or with robotics because there was a shuttle robotic arm and in the water tank training to do spacewalks and things,” Godwin said. “We did that kind of training interspersed all the time, but usually, we’d get back from the mission and they’d give us a technical assignment in the office we’d do for a while and wait to be reassigned."
Godwin said she took the risks of shuttle flight more into consideration after her first few missions.
“If you don’t think about what could go wrong, then you’re not really understanding what you’re doing,” she said. “I think that when you’re in it, there’s a sense of, you know, you’re focused, you’ve waited to do it for a long time. Particularly the first time or two, but then later on, there are the thoughts of risk versus gain with doing it again.”
Lanika Ruzhitskaya, director of the Science Outreach Center at Saint Francis University in Pennsylvania, said she’s known Godwin for close to eight years.
Godwin took over the Astronomy 1010 course from Ruzhitskaya when she began teaching at MU. Ruzhitskaya said she and Godwin frequently worked together through this process and often discussed how the students learn in the class.
“She was very interested in how to help students and how to get them excited and how to get them to understand,” Ruzhitskaya said. “She’s very much interested in helping students and showing them how to achieve their best in her courses.”
Ruzhitskaya also said that Godwin is very active in other aspects of the physics department. When students visited from other schools, Ruzhitskaya said Godwin was always there to help.
“In the observatory, Linda was always helping,” she said. “Anytime we had students come from even high school, middle school or even the little ones, Linda was always helping anytime she could. We’d tell her we had a group of kids coming and she would be there, quite frequently actually. She was great.”
Godwin “took the initiative” to begin working with students to add another telescope to the dome on the roof of the Physics Building, Ruzhitskaya said.
The new telescope will give students in upper-level physics and astronomy courses the opportunity to collect data through new computer programs that the older telescope is not compatible with. The project should be completed by the beginning of this summer.
“She’s working with students, and that’s just something that she does,” Ruzhitskaya said. “She really puts her trust in students, and she works with them to do things. Instead of getting an extensive specialist or anything, she really thinks that it’s important for students to learn and work with her to really help them. She’s just that kind of person.”
Ruzhitskaya said Godwin is a good friend as well.
“It’s just so impressive how somebody who has their own family and their own worries finds time to come and help a friend,” Ruzhitskaya said. “That’s just the kind of person she is. She really puts the people around her first, and she’s always thinking about how to help them.”
Godwin said choosing which mission was the best or most memorable is like choosing between your own children.
However, she said that there is always something to be said about the first flight into space.
“You don’t know what it’s going to be like to get up there and orbit around the Earth,” Godwin said. “So just getting up there and getting to see that for the first time and seeing how to do just daily stuff. I mean, not big things, but just living each day with everything floating around and finding that out.”
Godwin said she found very memorable moments in each of her missions because they were all very different and unique.
“The first time, I really enjoyed being the operator of the robotic arm, but then on my second trip, we had to document a lot of what we saw going on on Earth, so there was a lot of window time,” Godwin said. “Then I got to see both the Russian and International Space Stations, so those were all definitely highlights.”