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Sept. 22, 2011 Volume 33, No. 5

MU astronomy class to get first-hand account of the heavens


Former astronaut returns to the classroom

Students enrolled in Introduction to Astronomy at MU this semester will have a big advantage: an instructor that has actually walked in space.

Linda Godwin, a veteran astronaut, has come home to the university’s Department of Physics, where she earned her graduate degree while studying low-temperature, solid-state physics. In addition to teaching Introduction to Astronomy, Godwin will contribute to outreach in the department and will use her ties to NASA and the space program to contribute to new or existing projects, or perhaps develop a new class.

However, the most important lesson she may be teaching is the importance of physics and science, and the impact it could have on students’ future careers.

“The MU Department of Physics and Astronomy already has a tremendous outreach program, so I want to be sure that what I bring meshes with what they already have,” Godwin said. “My main goal is to draw students into physics and present them with options related to science and the scientific process – no matter what they go on to do. My degree got me in the door at NASA because we could work with investigators in all areas of science. Learning physics helps you understand how the whole world works.”

Godwin had a 30-year career with NASA, which she joined in 1980. She became an astronaut in 1986, and her career became more focused on other fields, depending on the mission into space. For example, she had to use earth science for measurements and observations as she orbited around the planet, and she learned engineering during both of her missions to dock with space stations. In 1996, she helped transfer astronauts to space station Mir; in 2001, she helped bring cargo to the International Space Station. She retired from NASA in 2010.

“The last shuttle flights have been focused on cargo flights, but when I was an astronaut, we had many dedicated science missions. The role we had to perform on each flight is embedded in my memory and that’s what I remember most,” Godwin said. “The feeling of being there and looking out at the Earth – that’s a perspective that still stays with me.”

Godwin’s husband, Steven Nagel, has joined the College of Engineering staff and will be teaching a course next spring.  Nagel became a NASA astronaut in 1979 and logged 723 hours in space.

“Many astronauts have gone back to their communities to talk about what they’ve learned,” Godwin said. “We are the only ones currently at the University of Missouri, and it is so nice to be back in the Midwest.”