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Math-Loving UW Alumna Launches Spacecraft with Boeing

April 17, 2020
woman at a large control panel
Lori Sandberg (Photo courtesy of Lori Sandberg)

A love of science and math took Lori Sandberg (B.S. ’10) from a wheat farm in Albin, Wyo., to a job with Boeing, where she ensures that spaceships launch and maneuver effectively.

The University of Wyoming College of Engineering and Applied Science helped foster Sandberg’s passion.

“A lot of the skills I learned at Wyoming I apply on a daily basis,” she says. “Engineering school at Wyoming was definitely rigorous. You have to work hard at it, and I apply that same ethic to my work now.”

Sandberg’s parents were UW alumni themselves, which is part of the reason she was drawn to the university.

“They had fantastic experiences there, so I knew I would probably like Wyoming,” Sandberg says. “My older sister also went to school there. I saw the things she got to do there in Laramie and the rewarding experiences she had, and I really looked up to that.”

UW’s Engineering Summer Program also had an influence, bringing Sandberg to campus for two weeks the summer before her senior year of high school.

“I enjoyed getting to know the professors—they were so energetic, and they cared so much about the students,” she says. “I don’t know if you always get that at a larger school where there’s a higher student-to-teacher ratio.”

Sandberg graduated in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, followed by a master’s from Texas A&M University. She took a job with Boeing in Seattle working on the 777X jet airliner. Two years later, she moved to Houston and began work on one of Boeing’s latest spacefaring projects—the CST-100 Starliner.

Boeing has been building spacecraft for decades. The company built the spacecraft used for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions every American schoolchild learns about today. Boeing also built the space shuttles and maintains and sustains the International Space Station to this day under a contract with NASA.

Since the space shuttle program ended in 2011, astronauts from the United States must hitch rides to the ISS on Russian spacecraft. Starliner aims to change that, providing an American-made and -operated transport to low Earth orbit.

Sandberg’s job is to make sure that transport is balanced. When a vehicle is accelerating through the atmosphere, jumping from zero to more than 17,500 mph in 12 minutes, weight and balance are critical to a successful mission.

The Starliner spacecraft saw its first uncrewed rocket launch test flight in December. After two days and more than 30 orbits, the capsule landed in White Sands, N.M. But Sandberg’s work is not yet over, as Boeing looks ahead to more test flights, including crewed flights.

“The mass properties can’t just be calculated once,” Sandberg says. “Each mission will have different crew and cargo aboard. So, you have to look at that for every single one.”

Throughout this work, Sandberg uses the knowledge and work ethic she gained at UW. She also brings what she learned as a member of both Tri Delta and Tau Beta Pi.

“I use those leadership and team-building skills because I work with so many people across so many geographical areas,” she says.

Sandberg says Boeing aims to fly a crewed test flight of the Starliner within the year.

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