From Naval Ships to Spaceships

Clark College and WSU Vancouver gave Sarah Morgan exactly what she needed to succeed as a mechanical engineer supporting the International Space Station.

Sarah Morgan spent more than five years in the U.S. Navy before she had enough confidence to go to college. Today, the 2013 graduate of WSU Vancouver is a mechanical design and analysis engineer for Boeing in Houston, working as a NASA contractor for the International Space Station sustaining program. There have been 42 spacewalks since Morgan was hired to the ISS program, and she has played a role in 31 of them.

Morgan was 31 years old when she completed her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Hired by Boeing in her last semester of college, she went straight to Houston, working for three years as a structural analyst on the Structural Integrity team and then transferring to the Structures and Mechanisms team. Her group sustains and upgrades the structures and mechanisms that make up the ISS. Part of her job is to serve as an expert on the technology, meaning she sometimes is brought in to explain something to the astronauts.

Morgan took a long and winding road to WSU Vancouver. She was born in Alaska and lived in Hawaii, Washington and Oregon before graduating from high school in Titusville, Fla. She started college but lasted only half a semester when she decided on the Navy. Her aptitude test showed mechanical ability, so she entered an aviation structural and hydraulic training program and was stationed in California as a mechanic on Super Hornet fighter jets. Out of 300 students in the training program, only three were women.

She left the Navy while stationed in Japan and stayed on in Japan for a year. From there she moved to Vancouver. She enrolled in Clark College in fall 2008.

“I wasn’t sure if I was ready for university classes after so many years away from school,” Morgan said. “Clark was the foundation that got me prepared for college.” Clark College’s mechanical engineering program gave her a sound basis for her major at WSU Vancouver. As an older student and a vet, she was comfortable being part of Clark College’s diverse student body. And transferring was easy—it felt more like transferring campuses than changing schools.

“By going to Clark, I was able to dust the cobwebs off my learning skills, and it boosted my confidence in my ability to learn,” she said. “I had been a good sailor. Clark helped me become a good student.”

At WSU Vancouver, she found a home among other student veterans. “They were a great group—sometimes if for no other reason than having somewhere to sit and somebody to talk to,” Morgan said. She took advantage of the small classes to get to know her professors. “I took an active role in my education, and they were more than glad to be part of it,” she said.

She seized opportunities to learn. One summer she worked in the Automation Lab designing, procuring parts and building machines for the lab. Her senior project proved especially valuable: Morgan along with four other seniors designed and built a small aircraft, on the scale of a model plane, to compete in the Society of Automotive Engineers Aero Design competition. She credits Steve Solovitz, associate professor of mechanical engineering, for guidance as they figured out the unknowns

“Now that I’m working in an industry where you don’t always have answers in front of you, I’ve realized it was a really good project,” she said. “We had the opportunity to learn how to learn about something. We had to come up with the funding, pitch it, travel to the competition, compete and come up with the money for that and represent our school in a lot of ways. That’s similar to what I’ve seen at Boeing in terms of coming up with projects and pitching them. Designing a project, then having to communicate why something is important and whom it can benefit—those were really good skills to learn.”

There are three tracks in a mechanical engineering major at WSU Vancouver. Morgan chose design and manufacturing as her primary track. That program instills skills such as computer-aided engineering, identifying and managing material failure in mechanical design, and advanced manufacturing.

For the International Space Station, Morgan coordinates engineering analysis responses for several teams working on structural and mechanical issues and, during missions, sits in the mission evaluation room at mission control helping support the mechanical aspects of actual spacewalks in real time. In short, she helps to make sure the equipment can handle the stresses it will face, and that the astronauts know how to solve technological problems in space.

“The analysis methods I learned in the mechanical engineering program were exactly what I needed to understand and use in my structural analyst position,” she said. She mentions Dave Kim, associate professor and coordinator of mechanical engineering. “His instruction was instrumental in my ability to do the job I was initially hired to do and allowed me to be a productive member of my team almost immediately.”

Morgan loves life in Houston. She likes the weather and dismisses Houston’s legendary traffic, saying it’s easier to get around in Houston than in the Vancouver/Portland area. She was married in September 2018 to Joseph Wiegand, an assistant engineer with a tugboat company.

“Now that I’m working as an engineer, I truly appreciate the education I received at both Clark College and WSU Vancouver,” Morgan said. “They gave me the hands-on experience and usable knowledge that many of my colleagues didn’t get. My education included quality facilities and labs, smaller classes, department project opportunities at the undergraduate level, collaboration with local industry and access to professors with real-world industry experience.”

She added: “My education has been more than a piece of paper or an item to list on my resume. It has been the preparation for my career.” ■

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