Resnik Challenger Medal

Sandra Irish

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

For pioneering work in structural analysis and testing; for tenacity, dedication, and innovation in a long career at NASA; and for leading engineering breakthroughs on many critical missions.

Sandra Irish has 40 years of experience in aerospace, working for NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and is a group lead in the Engineering Directorate’s Mechanical Systems Analysis and Simulation Branch. She is currently the structural loads engineer for the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer, the most critical instrument on the Dragonfly mission, which will examine Saturn’s moon Titan. She previously served as the mechanical systems lead structures engineer for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Irish graduated magna cum laude from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a B.S. in aerospace engineering. Her interest in engineering was initially inspired by her father, then nurtured by her structural dynamics professor, the late William Case, Ph.D. She started her career at NASA Goddard working on spaceflight instruments and spacecraft in structural dynamics, mechanical systems analysis, and mechanical testing.

Irish has worked on many difficult and high-profile projects, including the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), which revolutionized our understanding of the early cosmos. Her expertise enabled the COBE team to measure the cosmic microwave background radiation, which led to the two principal investigators receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2006. Irish also worked on the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS), the first multi-instrumented satellite to observe numerous chemical constituents of the atmosphere, and the Broad Band X-Ray Telescope (BBXRT). For 16 years, Irish worked on the JWST mission, leading a large structural dynamics team responsible for launch and transportation load environments, mechanical testing, and the telescope’s thermal distortion and jitter performance in orbit. In its very first year of operation, the JWST produced data and images that demonstrated the efficacy of Irish’s intensive planning and testing.

Irish also mentors engineering students and is involved in many public outreach activities that help inspire early-career engineers. She founded WEST (Women Engineers in Space and Technology) at NASA Goddard, and she is a member of the Women of Goddard advisory committee and of the Engineering Directorate’s diversity and inclusion committee.

Among the many awards Irish has received over the course of her NASA career are the NASA Honor Award – Exceptional Service Medal; the Robert H. Goddard Honor Award for Exceptional Achievement in Engineering; the Robert H. Goddard Honor Award of Merit; the NASA Honor Award – Outstanding Leadership Medal for her work on the JWST; and the Thomas J. Budney Award for Engineering Integrity. In March, Irish received the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, which is the highest agency honor that can be awarded to a NASA civil servant employee.

Irish is married with two children and one grandchild. She enjoys gardening, dancing, knitting, traveling, and soccer. She volunteers as a teacher and counselor through her church.