Professor Penny Henderson, an aerospace engineer known among colleagues for accurately predicting when the space station Skylab would fall out of orbit, died Wednesday at her home. She was 90 years old.
Growing up on a farm, Henderson was a stargazer and daydreamer by her own account but she often said her father only pretended to be impatient with her head in the clouds because by the time she was 10 she could fix almost anything on the farm. She wanted to be an engineer. Graduating from high school two years early, she attended Vassar College and earned her BA in mathematics and physics in 1930 at age 20. She continued her education, eventually receiving advanced degrees in civil engineering and architecture.
Henderson taught college until 1943 when she was asked to join a secret team working on U.S. rockets for the military. This was the beginning of her career as an aerospace engineer. To this day, friends and supporters claim Penny Henderson received too little credit for her contributions to the American space program, in part because she was a woman, and in part because she had a reputation for speaking her mind.
Henderson was a part of space station discussions as early as 1957 due to her expertise in orbital mechanics. In 1965, she became part of the group that developed what would become Skylab; however, she was at odds with her team as to the correct orbit for the space station. Her constant objections led to her reassignment just prior to Skylab’s launch in 1973 and she left NASA to teach in 1975. Nevertheless, she continued to insist that Skylab would fall out of orbit in 1979. Within the aerospace community, she is not only known for correctly predicting that Skylab was falling but attempting to warn President Carter at an inauguration gala.
She is survived by four children, 10 grandchildren, and her husband, John Fox (86).