AAE faculty profile series: Kathleen Howell
Kathleen Connor was going to do what she wanted.
Maybe there weren’t very many women in aerospace engineering in the late 1960s. Maybe her high school guidance counselor was directing her toward more traditional career paths for women of that era. Maybe there weren’t very many options to be taught in that discipline within the state of Iowa.
But she was fascinated by space, especially after watching the Apollo 11 mission on TV in 1969, dad beside her, in the family’s living room. She wasn’t so much enticed by the astronauts who traveled to the Moon but more so how they got there and the method to it all. Her mind couldn’t settle, swirling with questions.
So there was no doubt what she’d study in college.
But there was a hurdle: Eugene Connor.
Kathleen’s father was an attorney, and the house rules were clear: If you wanted something, you had to deliver a persuasive argument.
Eugene and wife Jean weren’t independently wealthy, so Kathleen had to stay within the state for college. Her parents thought she should attend a small women’s college, where she’d taken summer classes.
“I made a case for the fact that I can’t go there, I can’t go to the junior college, none of those places have what I want to study,” she said. “So I made an adequate case for Iowa State, and I’m the oldest one, so they had seven children to educate after me. Then I got some scholarship money to help as well.
“Once he was convinced, he was all in.”
More than that, he was a resounding source of support. Eugene Connor was a different man for his era, a catalyst for social change who was the first to hire female corporate lawyers in his field. He never questioned whether his daughter could not only pursue a traditionally male-dominated field — but before she left for Iowa State, he reminded her she could be anything she wanted to be.
With a firm caveat: “But be the very best at what you do.”
“WELL, WHY NOT?”
Kathleen Connor Howell may never have intended to be a pioneer, but that didn’t stop it from being so.
Again and again, she was the first.
When she attended Iowa State as a freshman, she was one of only two women in her undergraduate class in aerospace engineering. As she settled into a seat for a metallurgy class — a ring of empty chairs around her — the professor piped up, “Honey, I think you’re in the wrong room.” Her response, “I don’t think so.” Not brash, not defiant, just matter of fact.
When she graduated with a bachelor’s in 1973, few aerospace companies were interested in hiring a woman, so she interviewed with Procter & Gamble. She was the first woman hired at the Kansas City plant in line management, and a second was hired later that year. She was a supervisor to as many as 40 people, mostly all men, many considerably older than she was.
When she opted to give up that full-time position to return to graduate school — she desperately missed aerospace engineering — and selected Stanford, she was told she was one the first woman within the dynamics and control group who would earn a Ph.D. She was the first female graduate student of John Breakwell, one of the major developers of the field of astrodynamics.
When she pursued academia instead of industry after Stanford, she selected the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, despite being only one of three female faculty members in Purdue’s College of Engineering in 1982. She was the only one in AAE. And she was the only faculty member, man or woman, in orbital mechanics and spacecraft mission design.
“I was always there saying, ‘Well, why not?’” said Connor, who married fellow aerospace engineer Ned Howell in 1973. “I was a pretty tough nugget. I didn’t want to be handled differently. I was a pretty big advocate for wanting to be treated the same. Now, I wasn’t. That’s just the way it is. But I was pretty big on that. I wanted to earn all my stripes.”
Kathleen Howell doesn’t embrace the “pioneer” label. The way her path unfolded, simply, was how it unfolded. Her persistent pursuit wasn’t for notoriety. She wasn’t motivated by publications or awards or committees or research dollars.
Simply, Howell wanted to know how things worked. Things she didn’t understand — things few people did. And she kept plugging, kept searching, kept asking more questions. Few things in orbital mechanics are ever really known. She chewed on a problem, and the problem was its own value.
Those trajectory problems happened to produce ground-breaking research, specifically her research in near-rectilinear halo orbits.
“I never set out to do those things. I never set out to break some barrier. I never was trying to crack into something,” she said. “I was just going to do what I wanted to do. At times, I had to figure out some different ways to do it.”
She’s never bored. She’s never confronted with “easy.” She’s never satisfied.
None of that would be appealing.
“Probably every faculty member you talk about, we have this big, grandiose vision that we know we’ll work on our whole career and we’ll never actually answer all the questions,” she said. “New questions come up all the time. Sometimes, you discover something and it just opens up a whole raft of new questions. … In the space regime, what are we working on today that will completely change how we live or how our space program runs in 20 years? When we get to 20 years, we’ll have the next 20 we’ll be thinking about.
“For myself personally, I just don’t know how people can’t be excited about those questions.”
COLLABORATOR AT HEART
Just as important to Howell as the quest for answers is to seek out solutions with others, to be part of a group with the same appetite for discovery.
Howell’s career has not been lived in a vacuum. She actually doesn’t like to talk about her accomplishments, accolades or even reputation. Because she doesn’t view it as solely hers.
Even if she does deserve praise for the single-mindedness of her pursuit, the slog through the drip, drip, drip of slights that pooled up along the way, for pressing on despite doubters.
But it’s rare she’ll tell a story — about a mission she played an integral part in or a course she taught that spurred others beyond their known capabilities or another award she received — without mentioning who helped her along the way, before the breath is finished.
Even when she was overloaded as a freshman at Iowa State, she had her sorority sisters — not a single one of whom was in engineering — who supported her and served as her community in an otherwise lonely place at times. Howell is eager to accept a Distinguished Alumni Award, the highest honor given by Iowa State, because it means she’ll be reunited with her lifelong friends.
Even when she felt singled out as an undergrad, she still had professors who told her, simply, she would be held to the same standard as her male classmates — an encouragement they maybe didn’t even intend but was one just the same.
Even when her graduate school research in orbital mechanics was questioned as irrelevant, called a “purely academic exercise” with no ability to sustain a career in it, her advisor Breakwell was a staunch advocate, enabling her to brush off the slights and surge toward new discoveries in exotic trajectories.
Even when she stepped well beyond her comfort zone at P&G, learning as she went, the division chief affirmed his belief by promoting her to department manager.
Even when she was being pulled into committees and assignments related to diversity efforts as an assistant professor at Purdue, the “token woman” in many ways, AAE head Henry Yang was firmly in her corner, serving as a mentor and steward for new opportunities.
Even as she continued to earn contracts and grants from the likes of NASA, she relished the partnerships, cherished the opportunity to brainstorm ideas, to be challenged and challenge others to think differently, to think about things no one had literally ever considered.
Even as she started accepting graduate students, she was quick to disavow any kind of teacher-student notion. She didn’t want to devalue contributions they brought to research, the innovative thinking they exhibited, the flavor and personality each had. She saw collaborators. Period.
“When you collaborate with anybody, they have a certain expertise that they bring to the table. You have a certain expertise and you work together with those different levels of experience and capabilities to make something better come out of it,” Howell said.
Former and current graduate students said they appreciate that approach, even if it admittedly could take a while to truly accept — to see themselves as more than an apprentice to the Kathleen Howell.
“I was amazed that I had the chance to interact with — and learn from — someone who had done so much for the field,” said Emily Spreen, who joined Howell’s research group as a master’s student in 2015 and obtained a Ph.D. in May 2021. “She is a world-renowned astrodynamicist — the opportunity to work with a woman leader in this field is awesome.
“When I go to conferences, I am still amazed at the crowd of people who want to talk to her — or even to us, her students, just because we work with her.”
Students never need be intimidated, but they certainly better be ready to exert every ounce of energy and accept long nights when they enroll in one of Howell’s classes. From Aeromechanics I to Dynamics and Vibrations to Orbital Analysis, all undergraduate courses, to graduate-level Orbit Mechanics and Advanced Orbital Dynamics, Howell defines rigor.
In the moment, students lament the load of homework, the amount of information they’re required to learn, the theories that need to be studied. They’re exhausted after each course. And exhilarated.
Most wear completion of a Howell class as a badge of honor, and alumni often list her courses as some of the most demanding they had during their AAE careers — but also quickly follow up with mentioning Howell as one of their favorite professors.
Howell laughs at the contrast. But appreciates it, too. She purposely pushes students to the brink — but not beyond it — and wants them to leave feeling challenged but fulfilled.
“They may have started out saying, ‘Oh, I heard this was hard and I don’t think I can do it,’ but they can. That’s what I want them to come away with,” she said. “I also want them to know that the subject is hard, but it’s not something you can’t tackle, you can’t manage. I’m biased, of course, in the classes I teach — I think they’re really cool. I don’t know if it always happens, but I want them to walk away thinking that they know why they took the class, too. All of us took classes in the past we were just annoyed we had to take them and didn’t really know why.
“Over my career, I have seen a lot of people who didn’t think they could do it, but they realized they could. That was an important piece for me, to have folks challenge me because they believed I could meet those standards whether I thought I could or not. And that made a difference.”
Students say Howell’s classes stimulate and challenge them. They laud her for teaching difficult concepts well and praise her for how her teaching method clearly lays out the general path to figure out problems — but still requires thought on students’ parts to figure out how to get there. They realize, usually afterward, that truly rewarding learning is difficult and can cause stress, and it’s rare to experience pure enjoyment and pleasure when they’re taking the best courses of their lives. But the grind is worth the reward in knowledge and confidence gained.
“I think that Professor Howell expects her students to put forth a good effort and really master material. Knowing enough to slide by on the test isn't really enough to say you’ve mastered it, right?” Spreen said. “Professor Howell wants you to really know how to do the things she teaches and to build an engineering intuition, as well. As you proceed through solving a problem in the real world, you should know that the steps you are taking along the way make sense and the answers you are getting aren’t outlandish. Yes, that involves a lot of homework and practice, but I think it is so worth it.
“I’ve taken five of Professor Howell's classes, and I’ve never learned and retained so much as I have when she is teaching. Professor Howell isn’t just a brilliant researcher but an excellent instructor. She is passionate about the subjects she teaches, and I think that really comes through.”
Nine times, Howell has been voted by AAE undergraduate students as the Elmer H. Bruhn Award winner for excellence in teaching. Twice, she has been named as the A.A. Potter Best Teacher, an honor at the College level. She has received the Charles B. Murphy Award, the University’s highest undergraduate teaching honor. In 2019, she received the Morrill Award, the highest honor that Purdue confers onto a member of its faculty, for demonstrating a synergy among all dimensions of her profession, including teaching.
They’re validation, in a way, of her career choice.
Howell had an offer to do research in a full-time role at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory — a highly coveted destination in the industry — after graduate school. But she turned it down and continued to interview at universities because she wanted to do more than research. She knows teaching is not necessarily the reason others choose academia, but it was a vitally important component for her.
“I really get charged up by both,” she said of research and teaching. “In some ways, they’re not separate things, which is one of the great parts about a university. I can mingle those all the time. Working with your graduate students, if that isn’t teaching, I don’t know what is. At the same time, working in the classroom, the way you engage is to bring in those things that you do in the research world, the things you learn from that other world. So I find that they both energize each other.”
There’s no doubt her graduate students are energized.
The multi-body dynamics research group is highly competitive — in that it’s not easy to be admitted and, once in it, it’s a demanding environment. One of the hardest parts of her job, Howell said, is turning down students who ask to be part of the group. There’s simply a limit to how many Howell can manage effectively, wanting to give as much attention to each member of the group as she can. Still, she has 22 graduate students for 2020-21.
The group always has met at least once a week to share status updates on research findings. That’s helpful in a variety of ways — it allows students to learn about the latest research in multi-body dynamics, including topics they aren’t personally studying, giving them a broad knowledge of the topic. It also allows for peers to genuinely help each other. Howell encourages that, asking “older” students to mentor ones newer to the group, and she always promotes collaboration within the group, too.
She’s certainly available as a resource, but she’s always been particular about how she helps — in much the same way she teaches, prodding students to stretch beyond what they think they’re capable.
“While I was a student, Kathie would offer her insight and suggestions, but she lets her students follow their own paths to find the answers to the questions they study,” said Diane Davis, who was a graduate student in Howell’s group from 2005-2011.
With research, former graduate student Martin Ozimek said Howell was “challenging but fair.” Conference papers and journal papers are never rushed until there is absolute certainty that a highly valuable contribution to the field is being made, Ozimek said. Even then, students go through an incredibly rigorous writing and editing process involving “pen colors from every color in the rainbow,” he said. Early in his graduate years, the iteration process was difficult for Ozimek, and it took time for him to earn trust and respect to publish. But, over time, he said that respect in that collaboration significantly grew. He could share his own original ideas, and there were fewer edits and reviews.
“The process was always worth it,” said Ozimek, who was in Howell’s research group from 2004-10. “At conferences, the rooms were always packed with many attendees, and it was a truly humbling experience to have someone’s reputation alone command that kind of audience for one of her grad student’s papers.
“Being in her research group was one of the most positive experiences in my life.”
A big part of that was because of the person who leads it.
Someone who has contributed to important, critical missions, such as the Genesis mission, in which Howell produced a trajectory design that changed the way astrodynamicists calculated trajectories; the ARTEMIS mission that exploited halo orbits in the Earth-Moon system for the first time; and considering how multi-body dynamics could offer options for the extended Cassini mission.
Someone who sits on NASA Advisory Councils.
Someone who was named one of the “50 Most Important Women in Science” by Discover Magazine for her work on trajectory design and the innovative trajectory for the Genesis mission.
Someone who earned the American Astronautical Society Dirk Brouwer Award for significant contributions to spaceflight mechanics and astrodynamics.
Someone who is a Member of the International Academy of Astronautics, the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Someone who is a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the American Astronautical Society.
Someone who was presented with the International Astronautical Federation’s Distinguished Service Award.
“She is viewed as one of the greatest experts in the field of astrodynamics,” said Ozimek, the technology development lead for the entire space sector at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. “That was true before me joining the group and continues to be true to this day. Many of us have gone on to become professors, high-ranking engineers and the like, and I think we all hope to live up to the reputation that she’s made for herself in the field.”
Maybe Kathleen Howell didn’t envision any of this when she asked for a slide rule for Christmas as a high schooler, when she sent a request to NASA after Apollo 11 to find out how she could do that, when she plugged through undergrad at Iowa State.
Maybe she didn’t realize she’d be here, nearly 40 years into studying astrodynamics, as a global expert.
She certainly didn’t seek any of it.
She was just trying to convince Eugene.
She was just pursuing a passion.
She was just tackling challenges.
She was just working to inspire students.
She was just unintentionally creating a legacy.
“I like to work on hard problems. I like to discover new things. How well known some of this has become is a complete shock to me because that’s not why I do it. I really just like discovering something or understanding something,” Howell said. “To be honest, I don’t care if anybody else says ‘rah rah.’ You always hope that, some day, whatever you’ve done is useful to someone. But I don’t worry about that at all.”