The Charger Blog

Alumna Reflects on Out of this World Career in Aerospace

During her more than three decades in the aerospace industry, Ann Cox ’83 has played an important role in space shuttle missions as well as missions to the moon, Mars, and to examine asteroids. She is dedicated to sharing her passion for her work with engineers of the future.

July 5, 2022

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Ann Cox ’83 at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad under one of three Space Shuttle main engines.
Ann Cox ’83 at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad under one of three Space Shuttle main engines.

When Ann Cox ’83 was a junior in high school, her physics teacher told her about a summer education program for high-school students that piqued her interest. It served as an introduction, of sorts, to the field of engineering, and she would go on to work in several areas within the field throughout her distinguished career.

Ann Cox ’83 on the launch pad beside the Atlantis.
Ann Cox ’83 on the launch pad beside the Atlantis.

A project manager for Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Cox has degrees in civil and structural engineering, as well as a license in mechanical engineering. Passionate about hands-on testing and experimentation, she has focused on aerospace for most of her career, working across the country and internationally on spacecraft that have gone to the moon, Mars, and, even, a comet.

As an undergraduate student at the University of New Haven, Cox chose to study civil engineering because it seemed to be the most diverse discipline. She also liked the structural aspect of it and she enjoyed building things – which she did as part of her senior project that focused on bridges. Cox says the project was a terrific opportunity – one that many students at the time did not have – and she is grateful for the hands-on opportunities she had in the classroom.

“The professors brought such varying backgrounds,” she said. “These were professors who had their own companies on the side, the y had 30 years’ experience building things, and that was great. They had a lot of real-world experience and could share what worked and what didn’t. I liked that we had such skilled professors teaching us in every class.”

‘I was a civil engineer from the University of New Haven among MIT and Stanford grads’

After beginning her career at Louis Berger International in Manhattan where her work focused on bridges, she got a call from Rockwell International, a major manufacturing conglomerate at the time that was involved in the aircraft and space industries. Interested in her structural and stress-analysis work, they wanted to interview her to work on the space shuttle. She accepted their offer, moving out to California. There, she launched her career from working on bridges to the space shuttle’s main engines.

Cox describes her position as “fun and exciting,” though it was also demanding. She and her colleagues, including engineers from all backgrounds, such as agricultural engineers, worked mandatory 60-hour, six-day workweeks.

“Early on, the structural analysis classes and the modeling I had done at the University really helped,” she said. “There was an in-house finite modeling tool, and having been exposed to working with tools like that at the University, I picked it up quickly. Within three years, I got a lead engineer position. I was a civil engineer from the University of New Haven among MIT and Stanford grads.”

‘They were looking at me to say ‘go’’

It was the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in January 1986 that changed the trajectory of Cox’s and her colleagues’ work. No longer building new engines, they were now focused on failure investigation and analysis. Eager to continue working in the aerospace industry, Cox wanted to be at the forefront of building and testing. She’d found her passion.

“In aerospace, when you’re working on something, it’s the first time it’s been done,” she explains. “Often, there are not people who have previously done what you’re doing. I really like that, and it is what attracts me most to the work I do now. Every mission is different because you’re doing science. You’re not building an aircraft or a bridge.”

Cox took the opportunity to earn her master’s degree in structural engineering from UCLA, and she was excited to return to “building, testing, and breaking things.” She moved back into the aerospace industry, where she focused on unmanned missions.

While working for Aerojet Rocketdyne, she continued to focus on the space shuttle. Though she hadn’t yet reached her 30th birthday, she’d already had some particularly exciting opportunities to work on the space shuttle directly. When something was found at the testing facility that could impact the launch, her colleagues turned to her expertise.

“Once or twice, I had to get on a plane and climb up under a rocket on the space shuttle on the pad just days before launch,” she said. “I had to take a look at the hardware because they needed someone with experience who knew the design to look at it and evaluate it to determine whether or not it was going to be an issue and to do the analysis. It was set to launch in two days, and they were looking at me to say ‘go,’ so that was exciting.”

Ann Cox ’83 (far right) worked on the Mars Pathfinder lander and rover.
Ann Cox ’83 (far right) worked on the Mars Pathfinder lander and rover.
‘How to land and do science on a comet’

Though launches were exciting, Cox was ready to try something new. She began working for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech. That, she says, is where she got to do some “very interesting” work on unmanned missions.

Cox began working on a small Mars-bound rover as a member of the entry, descent, and landing team. The rover, which was “about the size of a breadbox,” was to land and drive on the Red Planet – something that had never been done before.

"There’s a real difference in the industry between engineers who have been in the lab and built and tested things versus those who have only learned from books and have not turned a wrench."Ann Cox ’83

Her work brought her out to Utah, where she and her teammates dropped objects from helicopters as part of their testing process. Working with a variety of unique fabrics, they inflated airbags and bounced them in parking lots. The mission also brought them to Cleveland where they released airbags, bouncing them to determine how they ripped and tore, marking them with colored chalk to aid in the analysis.

Later on, Cox accepted a position as a chief engineer on an international project with the European Space Agency. She began working on one of two comet landers that would go into space on the Rosetta space probe.

“It was challenging because we had to figure out how to land and do science on a comet,” she said. “Scientists gave us specs on what the comet could be like – anything from cotton candy to a concrete block. We came up with a new T-spike design, which was inspired by nail guns, and it would have mesh go out to bag it and hold the device in place on the comet.”

‘I often brought my kids to work’

Eventually, Cox, a native of Connecticut, decided to return to the East Coast. She began working as a thermal engineer at Orbital Sciences in Virginia, where her projects included developing thermal blankets and tiles for the shuttle.

After proposing her ideas to NASA, she earned the opportunity to work on a mission called Dawn, a space probe that was the first to orbit two bodies (Vesta and Ceres, protoplanets in the asteroid belt). The spacecraft, which used ion engines, might’ve resembled something from science fiction – such as the “twin ion engine” or “TIE” fighters in Star Wars – but this spacecraft was real, and it broke several records. The team received the National Air and Space Museum Trophy, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s highest group honor, for their work.

“At the time, my son was into Star Wars,” she said. “I often brought my kids to work, and I showed him what we were working on. I wanted to share this with them.”

Ann Cox ’83 (left, in blue) with members of the Dawn spacecraft team.
Ann Cox ’83 (left, in blue) with members of the Dawn spacecraft team.
‘I learned to be independent’

Now at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Cox has worked on a spacecraft that will go to Jupiter’s moon Europa, as well as the Lunar Vertex as part of a mission back to the moon.

“As a project manager, I ask a lot of questions,” she said. “You have to get everyone’s input to make decisions. I’m finding a lot of engineers I hire aren’t asking enough questions. I think collaboration and working as a team are essential. No engineer knows it all or does it all.”

As a leader in her field, Cox also navigated the challenges of being a woman in an industry that has long been male-dominated. She says she was typically the only female in her classes as an undergraduate and graduate student. While she says the field remains mostly male, being one of the only woman helped her learn to figure things out for herself. Her performance, results, and ideas also spoke for themselves.

“At the University of New Haven, I found that having professors teach without only focusing on textbook learning and being encouraged to think elsewhere enabled me to come up with new and innovative ideas,” she said. “Today, you can’t just do a Google search. You have to figure it out for yourself. As the only woman in my classes, I learned to be independent.”

‘You also have to fail’

Dedicated to sharing her passion for engineering and aerospace with the scientists of the future, Cox particularly enjoys speaking with elementary- and middle-school students. She wants them to know that engineering can be fun and exciting. Whether she is helping them to build rockets and launch them on the playground or discussing her day-to-day work, she says sharing her passion with them is rewarding and meaningful.

“I want kids to know that this work is not just sitting in front of the computer,” she said. “It’s about the things you can build and blow up. I relate it to everyday things they use all the time, explaining how things were first developed because of a need to make something work. I point out things we use and tell them to thank an engineer for that.”

Cox’s passion for building, tinkering, and experimenting carries over to her home life, where her kids never know what she’ll take apart next and try to improve. They are used to her working on various projects and tinkering with things around the house. It is this curiosity and interest in exploring that continues to drive her in her career, and it’s what she hopes to share with current students and tomorrow’s leaders in the field.

“Gain as much hands-on experience as you can,” she encourages. “There’s a real difference in the industry between engineers who have been in the lab and built and tested things versus those who have only learned from books and have not turned a wrench.

“You also have to fail,” she continued. “Having failures helps you find what the margins are and enables you to learn how you can do things differently. I’ve had so many failures – I’ve had parachutes rip up and engines explode. You have to try something different and see if it works – but don’t worry if it doesn’t. You can just try something different next time.”