Rocket scientist

CSE alumna serves as first female chief engineer for International Space Station

July 9, 2019

Heather McDonald makes sure that astronauts never again repeat the famous line, “Houston, we have a problem.”

McDonald, a career NASA employee, serves as the chief engineer of the International Space Station (ISS). She is the first female to hold the position in the 20-year history of the space station.

“I feel very lucky I have a job I love so much,” said McDonald (Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics ’92). “One of the things I love is how much I get to learn, grow, and expand my knowledge literally on a daily basis.”

McDonald helps integrate the work of about 20 different engineering units within NASA, from navigation to thermal control to avionics, to keep the ISS orbiting the earth and accomplishing its science objectives. Her purview covers all space station engineering operations plus the fleet of vehicles that travel to and from it.

Her job also entails coordinating with the Russian, Japanese, European, and Canadian space agencies, and private companies such as Elon Musk’s Space X.

“If something breaks on the ISS, Mission Control engages my team to help solve the problems,” she said.

“Our job is also to assess activities and hardware in advance to ensure they don’t break,” McDonald explained. 

McDonald traces her interest in aerospace to growing up near the Air National Guard base in Duluth. When the family heard the roar of military jets, they hurried outside or drove to the airport to watch F-4 and F-16 fighter planes practice takeoffs and landings.

She enrolled in the University of Minnesota–Duluth intending to major in math but shifted to aerospace engineering, transferred to the Twin Cities campus, and launched a career that led to space. She joined CSE’s co-operative program (in which students alternate semesters of academic work with full-time employment) in 1989 and spent four quarters working at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

McDonald has spent her entire career at the center (including 16 years of part-time work while raising three children).

Some engineers thrive in narrow silos, but McDonald prefers working across disciplines and interacting with many departments—which is exactly what she does today. Her team ensures that every piece of hardware and software for the space station meets NASA requirements and “everything works together as an integrated system.”

“Growing up, I enjoyed looking at the night sky,” she said. “Never did I imagine the dreams born at the University of Minnesota would connect me so closely to the stars.”

Story by Kermit Pattison

Read about more College of Science and Engineering alumni pushing the boundaries in their field:

Charlie Spanjers, Kyle Olson, Brad Guertin: Bike nerds

Nick Halla: Plant-based advocate

Benton Johnson: Skyscraper enthusiast