Woman of the cloth

Elsa Hennings has spent her career designing parachutes for NASA.

scientists with parachute

Elsa Hennings, BS ME ’82, right, and colleague Rob Sinclair take a break from installing parachutes that Hennings engineered for use on the Orion spacecraft.

Elsa Hennings, BS ME ’82, has spent her career designing parachutes for Navy aircraft and NASA spacecraft. You can find her work on Mars, where it landed with the Mars Pathfinder and Exploration Rover missions.

But Hennings’s proudest achievement floated down to Earth when, in 2010, a Navy plane caught fire, and the crew bailed out safely using her parachutes. She tried to reach crew members to learn how the parachutes performed and how they might be improved, but she never could make contact.

A few years later, Hennings, the Navy’s chief engineer for parachute systems, gave a presentation of her group’s work to aviators visiting the base in China Lake, California. Afterward, a man in his 30s walked up, took her hand, and, with tears in his eyes, thanked her.

“No problem,” she said, confused. “I give presentations all the time.”

“No, I want to thank you for saving my life,” he said. He was one of the men from the plane.

Hennings stood there, shaken, thinking, “Here’s a man with a family he got to go home to because of what I did.” In that moment, she knew she’d spent her career in the best possible way.

Her colleagues agree.

In 2017, Hennings’s peers gave her the biannual Theodor W. Knacke Aerodynamic Decelerator Systems Award. Since its inception 38 years ago, 23 people have won it. Hennings is the first woman and the first recipient from the Navy.

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