Former NASA astronaut brings extensive knowledge and experience to MU

Friday, September 16, 2011 | 3:38 p.m. CDT; updated 6:58 p.m. CDT, Friday, September 16, 2011
Former astronaut and Introduction to Astronomy instructor Linda Godwin, center, laughs with freshmen Andrea Sims, left, and Hillary Switzer about a moon observation exercise after class on Thursday. Godwin earned her doctorate in physics from MU in 1980.

COLUMBIA — Linda Godwin knows how to handle pressure. She's been rocketed into space with more than three times the force of gravity bearing down on her. She's seen the Earth from 100 miles up.

So staring down a lecture hall full mostly of freshmen? No sweat.


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That's the way it looked on Thursday when she announced to more than 100 students that the weekend's homework awaited them in the back of the room.

A netting of angst seemed to fall over the class.

"You almost lucked out with no homework," Godwin continued. "But I went back and got it."

Godwin, an MU graduate and recently retired NASA astronaut, recently began her new career teaching astronomy at MU. As far as talking about astronomy goes, she brings the cachet of having been there, done that.

"Her teaching ties in life experiences," freshman Hillary Switzer said. "It makes it more realistic than a book and really enriches the class."

Born in Jackson, in southeastern Missouri, Godwin developed an interest in space at an early age.

“When I was a kid, they (NASA) were doing all the early programs with Apollo and walking on the moon — that influenced my interest in math and science," she said.

Godwin earned her doctorate in physics from MU in 1980, the year she joined NASA. She credits the education she received at Southeast Missouri State University and MU for giving her the background to apply to the space agency.

"She can answer any question you throw at her," said Megan Patzius, a junior majoring in environmental science. "She offers insight into what things are really like in space — you can feel her passion for it."

At the Thursday lecture, Godwin went through a series of slides, carefully describing eclipses and oceanic tides. Even students seated at the back of the hall appeared to be fully tuned in.

“It’s really amazing," freshman Olivia Boyer said. "She's not just someone in astronomy but someone who has seen it themselves — she has those memories. It’s not just a pretty picture on a board."

After working with NASA for about five years in the space program in Houston, Godwin finally was tapped to go to space.

"It was the phone call you dream of getting," Godwin said. "I feel very fortunate to have done it, and I wouldn't have changed a thing."

Godwin was on four space shuttle missions. Space shuttle flights are shorter than International Space Station flights — it's more a sprint than a marathon, she said. With little time for entertainment, free time was often spent just watching the world go by.

"Looking out the window couldn't be beat," Godwin said. "If I had any time at all, that would be my favorite thing to do."

Godwin's astronomy class meets four days a week for 50 minutes, but she happily stays after class to take questions and share her passion for astronomy.

Her husband, retired astronaut Steven Nagel, also has joined MU. The two met as astronauts — they went on one space shuttle flight together, Godwin's first — and have been married for 15 years. Nagel is working in the dean's office of the College of Engineering as he prepares to begin teaching in spring.

"I think she really wants to be here working with students and try to give them the benefit of what we learned over the years," Nagel said.

Godwin hopes to eventually create a class at MU about the physics and science that make space flight and research possible. The foundation for this class would be centered around space flight itself.

Godwin's ties to Missouri are strong. "She can serve as a great motivator for students," Nagel said. "She came from a background very similar to them and can show them they have the potential to accomplish many things."

Godwin said she was just a kid who read science fiction books.

"The reality is never quite like that, of course, but just the idea of leaving the earth and going somewhere — it seemed kind of like an adventure," she said.

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Mike Martin September 16, 2011 | 6:05 p.m.

This is certainly cool. There are only a handful of astronauts in the world, a smaller handful of female astronauts, and among them all, Linda Godwin has had a fairly storied career.

It's great that she and her husband have decided to teach, and a rare opportunity for students. Just the thought of going into space scares me to death, and they've done it how many times?

On the practical side, there's a ton of activity in private space flight now, with SpaceX, Virgin, ATK, and other firms jockeying to take over for NASA.

Godwin's idea of a class about the physics and science of space flight could serve a whole generation of future private-space employees quite well.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith September 16, 2011 | 6:26 p.m.

It is indeed cool, as are the two female Astronauts, both still on active duty, who matriculated at Missouri University of Science & Technology (Janet Kavandi and Sandra Magnus).

An earlier alumnus, who was a pilot in the Apollo program, retired and taught calculus at his alma mater. He might be the most popular calculus instructor who ever lived.

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