Dorothy “Dottie” Lee
Recruited right out of college after earning her BA in mathematics from Randolph-Macon Women’s College as a computer for Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Dorothy “Dottie” Lee made her way in a male dominated field to build a celebrated career at NASA.
Originally assigned to the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division as a human computer, she learned to be an engineer from the men working in the department. As a project engineer at NACA she was responsible for design, trajectory, and stability analysis of spacecraft including planning the instrumentation and analysis of the experimental data.
Starting with single stage vehicles she proved herself capable of larger projects eventually working with five stage vehicles including testing designs that would be part of the Mercury spacecraft. In 1958 when NACA transitioned into NASA, Lee continued working as an aerotechnologist looking at heat transfer to predict the performance of the Apollo heat shield. Using data from the Mercury and Gemini programs as well as wind tunnel tests, Lee used an early computer to make predictions of the temperatures and pressures the capsule would have to endure.
What she found was that the command module would need a new type of heat shield which was designed and tested in unmanned flights and the data returned confirmed Lee’s predictions. When NASA began work on its space shuttle orbiter, Lee became a subsystems manager in charge for the teams that designed the thermal protection system for the shuttle including the nose cone which was nicknames “Dottie’s Nose.”
When she retired from NASA in 1987 it was joked that her retirement was a line item in the Johnson Space Center budget, which she later learned was because it took ten men to replace her, three from NASA and seven contractors. After her retirement she spent a little time traveling before returning to work part time on various engineering projects. Lee’s legacy lives on in the new Orion spacecraft that uses an Apollo style heat shield built based on the theoretical predictions she had made years before.
Written by Angela Goad