Let’s Talk to SpaceX Engineer Joy Dunn About Falcon 9!

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feature image via Wired.

Did all of y’all catch the spectacular SpaceX Falcon 9 launch AND LANDING this week? Holy bananas, landing a rocket upright back on Earth has never been done before. If you miraculously haven’t caught any video footage of it on your news feeds this week, here’s what it looked like:

Here to chat with us about it is SpaceX Engineer and friend of Autostraddle, Joy Dunn, whom we all call Space Joy. The interview has been edited for flow and we’d like to remind y’all that any opinions shared here are not of SpaceX, but of Space Joy herself.


So what’s your role at SpaceX? What does your day to day look like?

I build spaceships every day! More specifically, I’m the Senior Manager for Dragon Manufacturing Engineering and lead a team of about 65 engineers who build and integrate our Dragon spacecraft. My job every day is to figure out how to build the spacecraft better, faster, and cheaper than the flight before and to create the processes and solve the challenges to make that happen. I’ve been at SpaceX for 7 years now and have helped us launch the first commercial spacecraft in orbit around the Earth, become the first private company to dock with the International Space Station, and now I’m working towards returning astronauts back to space on an American rocket with our Crew Dragon vehicle.

What was your role in landing a rocket RIGHT SIDE UP ON LAND OH GOD I CAN’T BELIEVE IT HAPPENED?

A few people on my team also build products for Falcon 9 (the rocket) including the grid fins and the landing legs that actually made it possible to be the first-orbital class rocket to land back on Earth. My own individual role in the landing was to scream wildly from the front row behind Mission Control when we saw the whole thing happen live.

What does the Falcon 9 launch and landing mean for the future of science and space exploration?

It’s a huge game changer! This is the first step to making rockets fully reusable which will drastically reduce the cost of access to space. Think about it—if you had to build a new plane every time you flew from Los Angeles to New York City, your plane ticket would be so outrageously expensive that you would never be able to fly. So we want to get to the point where space flight can be as reusable and cost effective as hopping on an airplane. If we can achieve this, it makes sending people to Mars that much closer of a reality!

Why is space exploration important to you? What do you say to people for whom space exploration is not a scientific priority?

Space exploration is important to me because it’s the final frontier and pushes human ingenuity to see what we can achieve. We don’t know what all is out there until we explore and we don’t know how much we can accomplish until we push ourselves to make it happen. A lot of astronauts come back from their time in space and say that they view the world differently after seeing Earth as a “pale blue dot” in the vast openness of space. Earth to them is not made up of country borders, war, or politics but is instead a single planet, a single species traveling through space together.

Do you ever want to put your own self into space? When did you know that was something you did (or didn’t) want to do?

Yes, definitely! I grew up wanting to be an astronaut ever since I was a little kid and I still want to be an astronaut when I grow up! My bedroom walls were covered in NASA posters and Space Shuttle Mission patches and I still have the autographed photo of Sally Ride (the first female US astronaut in space) I got when I was 7. I would volunteer myself for the very first crewed Dragon flight if they’ll let me!

If any of our fellow queerbos want a career in the spacey side of science, what kind of advice do you have for them?

Go for it! If you have a passion for space, science, tech, or engineering, don’t be afraid to go for it and apply yourself. It has been a super rewarding experience for me because I’m doing what I love and I get to see things that I’ve built actually fly in space. It can be challenging (it is rocket science after all!) but it’s worth every minute of it on launch day! For anyone that is still in school, get interested in any type of engineering program (aerospace, mechanical, electrical, computer science, etc.), get your hands dirty with a hands-on project like the rocket club or Formula SAE team, and soak up as much knowledge as you can.

Following up on that question, are there many women, non-binary folks and queers in your line of work?

There are certainly more men and non-queers in my line of work but SpaceX does a great job with diversity outreach and I’m lucky to always have felt like an equal in my line of work. I’ll be speaking at the Lesbians Who Tech conference in February hoping to grow the number of women and queers at SpaceX too.

Does it bother you that we literally all call you Space Joy?

Nope, I love it!

Is there anything people (me, included) aren’t asking you about Falcon 9 that you wish they were asking?

I don’t think so but I’ll never get tired of hearing the question “When are we getting to Mars?!”

Staff Writer for Autostraddle, Part-time Faculty at The New School (teaching digital storytelling), Managing Editor for Scholar & Feminist Online at Barnard Center for Research On Women. Follow me on Twitter @AEOsworth or on Instagram, also @AEOsworth.

A.E. has written 539 articles for us.

28 Comments

  1. Ok, I’m going to ask the silly question because *mind blown*

    When the rocket lands upright (IT LANDED!), how does it not catch fire or burn into a million pieces!?

    I am also very excited about Mars – but I would have to give up my cat and that’s a sacrifice too far.

    • I’m sure Joy could answer this better than I can, but I’ll give it a shot. After the first stage (the main rocket) dropped off it’s load (the upper stage full of satellites) it reversed direction and came back towards Earth, bottom first. Kind of like reversing a car and going backwards – so it came back towards Earth in the same orientation it went up. It fired back up it’s engines upon re-entry into the atmosphere, slowing it so it would not burn up. And when it got close to landing it used it’s engines again to slow itself enough that it would gently touch down on the landing pad and not crash.

      Also I think the plan is cats on Mars, so you could probably bring your cat.

    • The landing legs are made of ablative materials and the engine skirts don’t burn. Also only 1 of the 9 Merlin 1D engines (center engine) performed the final landing, and it was throttled down to about 70% thrust. You can see the rocket got very dirty from the exhaust but hopefully there was no other damage to it. Hope that helped 🙂

      • Thankyou for explaining it Cee, Jay & Joy.

        That article is wonderfully written. It’s so accessible, even for a novice like me.

        The work you’re doing is truly, truly awesome. I’m staggered at even contemplating how much work in STEM is required to achieve this.

        So really – a heartfelt thanks. This is just so incredibly cool.

        PS. The cat is very excited about Mars. Can I send her application in now?

  2. One time, I drunkenly cried to Space Joy about a breakup on Cee’s kitchen floor at 3 in the morning and even though she is a literal rocket scientist she was still the sweetest and did not make me feel like an idiot.

  3. I would love to have space Joy’s job. Making spacecraft like crew dragon everyday for a living, I’d be in heaven. Also I was very impressed with Joy’s comment about part of her job was to consider cost and to be innovative to try and reduce costs. That is something that neither Boeing, Lockheed Matin, Orbital ATK or any other old space aerospace companies ever thought about never mind actually listing it as part of their job responsibilities. I loved NASA as a child but lost interest as a young adult as it was just the same old 5-10 STS launches a year and not much else. But SpaceX has reignited my passion for space exploration. Keep up the good work SpaceX, were always rooting for you. Because your success is America’s success!

    • Thanks Jay! One of my favorite parts of my job is to inspire others about space and I’m happy to be a part of getting people excited about space again! And you can always join us at SpaceX if you want (www.spacex.com/careers) 🙂

  4. I love this interview! I’ve been following SpaceX’s achievements pretty closely lately, and the recent Falcon 9 landing blew my mind.

    I briefly considered a career in aerospace engineering for a while in my youth, but got completely sidetracked by computer science and solar energy. Those are pretty awesome, too, but few things ignite my imagination quite like space exploration.

    Joy, I look forward to more milestones and successes for you and your Dragon team!

  5. Just here to say that landing that rocket is so magical it just looks like you played the tape backwards. It’s right up there with unexploding an explosion or unbursting a water balloon with the amount of nifty it is. Here’s to tourists on Mars in our lifetime! Maybe.

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