Retired astronaut Linda Godwin returned to her hometown of Jackson on Thursday, May 18, to be honored as a “hometown hero” by the Cape Girardeau County History Center.
Godwin spent 30 years working for NASA, completing four space flights, two spacewalks and logging over 38 hours in space. After retiring from NASA in 2010, Godwin became a professor for the University of Missouri’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.
“It is an honor to have something here in the History Center about my career and about NASA,” Godwin said, joking that it did also show her age to be included in a history exhibit.
The history center created an exhibit on Godwin’s life and career, which is currently on display in Jackson. The center was filled with visitors during Godwin’s visit to see her speak about her experiences in space and talk to her individually.
Godwin said the Jackson community has always been supportive of her, particularly when she was actively flying and would return after space flights. “There’s a lot of change around town, but a lot of it just still looks the same and has that familiar feel,” she said. “It’s a great hometown to come back to.”
Godwin spoke about her career at NASA and what it took to become an astronaut. “I had no path to NASA but I had a path to an education and so that’s what worked for me,” she said.
Godwin praised her teachers at Jackson High School, as well as educators at Southeast Missouri State University where she received her undergraduate degree and at University of Missouri where she received her master’s and doctoral degrees.
“When I grew up, I was one of the nerd kids and I liked math and science, but Jackson had a lot of those kids so I didn’t feel like an outlier,” Godwin said. “I read all the science fiction books in the regional library. I really liked science, but I never thought about where I could go.”
She said it was difficult to imagine being an astronaut because there wasn’t an obvious path to do that from Jackson and that the early NASA missions did not include women. “You have to see somebody doing something that you think you would like to do to really think that it’s possible,” Godwin said.
Godwin said the path to become an astronaut is open for everyone, but requires personal effort, preparation and some luck.
“You never know where you’re going to end up or where you are going to live, but if you want to follow one of these paths, there are ways to do it,” she said.
Godwin said at some point she just had to put herself out there and apply to be an astronaut, adding that she didn’t make it the first couple of times she applied.
“It opened up a lot of doors for me,” Godwin said. “I got to travel to different countries I probably wouldn’t have gone to. Even now, it lets me be in this historical society.”
Godwin said her time in space allowed her to have a unique perspective, not just of the universe but also the planet she calls home. “We have the oasis of the solar system,” she said. “We already knew that, you don’t have to go to space, but it is a beautiful view.”
During her space flights in low Earth orbit, the shuttles went fast enough to be able to travel around the world in 90 minutes. Godwin said it allowed her to see how the world is connected and people are closer to each other than they may think. “It’s just kind of peaceful to look out and seeing sunrises and sunsets every orbit,” she said.
Godwin said her four shuttle missions ranged from deploying a gamma ray observatory in space to studying Earth’s surface to visiting the Russian space station Mir and the International Space Station.
“Every flight was so different,” she said. “I think one of the fun things was that we learned something new for each flight.”
Godwin is now semi-retired from the University of Missouri, teaching one online class and continuing to do outreach for the physics and astronomy department. She also serves on the NASA Advisory Council’s science committee.
Godwin talked about upcoming NASA missions and the Artemis program, which plans to return crewed missions to the moon and potentially lead to missions to Mars. Godwin noted that she doesn’t expect to see an astronaut step foot on Mars during her lifetime, but a return to the moon seems likely.
“Going back to the moon this time is already an international effort and a lot of these private contractors have pieces of this effort already that they’re working on to go back to the moon,” she said. “Everybody’s kind of drawn into that project.”
The first Artemis mission, Artemis I, was an uncrewed flight test of the space launch system and Orion spacecraft. The test, which included traveling around the moon, was launched in November and returned after its 25-day mission.
“It used the same launch vehicle that the Artemis II crew will use, and it was successful enough that we’re proceeding with the next mission in the series, scheduled for launch late next year,” Godwin said.
Godwin said Artemis III is expected to put astronauts on the moon for the first time since 1972. “The more we learn about the moon, the more we understand about our own solar system,” she said.
The mission is expected to explore the moon’s south pole, which Godwin said is interesting because of it’s unique topography of high mountains and deep craters.
“There is stuff there that’s been frozen since the earliest days of the solar system, so we think it’s going to be a really interesting place to explore,” she said. “The shadows will be very challenging to deal with in terms of landing.”
Godwin said the Artemis missions would require entirely different technology than the Apollo missions due to the unique environment of the moon’s south pole. “Astronauts may go into craters that are as black as anything you can imagine with no light at all, so it’s going to take a different support system,” she said.
Godwin said she was proud to go into space and is excited to see a return trip to the moon. She added that NASA first landed on the moon the summer before her senior year at Jackson High School.
“I was just fascinated by all of that,” she said. “I had no idea I could ever work for NASA, that I would end up meeting some of those people who went to the moon.”