Finding her center of gravity, on and off the job

A Starliner Weights and Mass Properties engineer is a long way from the wheat fields of Wyoming.

February 13, 2023 in Space

  Lori Sandberg Lori Sandberg, lead Weights and Mass Properties engineer, stands in front of the Starliner crew module for the Crew Flight Test Vehicle on Jan. 13, 2023 during the Weight and Center of Gravity testing. (John Proferes photo)

In the wheat fields surrounding her childhood home, Lori Sandberg learned a strong work ethic from her parents that has carried over into the Commercial Crew Program.

The lead Weights and Mass Properties engineer, who ensures Starliner meets all its weight requirements for a safe and successful launch and return, would help her parents on the farm throughout the year and through busy summer harvests. She and her older sister would move tractors from field to field, pull out rye that could negatively impact the wheat crop, haul rocks out of the fields, fill bins with wheat during the harvest, and perform other tasks to keep the family business running smoothly.

The open farmland and clear Wyoming skies also gave her a unique stargazing perspective and early fascination with space.

 “We grew up on a wheat farm in the middle of nowhere,” Sandberg said. “There was always plenty of work to do and it had to be done. We saw the dedication of our parents. They were always running into problems with tractors not starting, but they never gave up and just kept pushing through and it always worked out.”

That determination learned at a young age has served her well on the Starliner program, where there is no margin for error in a position that relies on precision. Each part of the spacecraft must meet specific weight requirements in order to have a safe mission. 

Throughout its design and build, Sandberg ensures guidelines are followed when it comes to weight, center of gravity balance for the vehicle and how the vehicle resists rotational acceleration.

Although based in Houston, she’s at the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility in Florida for various testing, including the recent weight and center of gravity test of the crew module for the Crew Flight Test.

There are weight requirements every step of the way from when the spacecraft is stacked on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket to how much it can weigh when it docks to the International Space Station and how much it can weigh as items jettison off prior to landing. 

“We have requirements for re-entry of the crew module to make sure it hits the landing site target so the landing and recovery crew can get to the vehicle in a certain amount of time,” she said.

Cargo plays an important role and every mission is different. Cargo may have to be reconfigured if testing is even just .1 inch off. 

Starting with Starliner in 2015, Sandberg has enjoyed working with various groups, from design and engineering to crew and cargo. She also finds it rewarding to go to the factory and conduct the tests after working with Computer Aided Design, or CAD, models.

“Everyone is super passionate and wants everything to succeed,” Sandberg said. “Working on that kind of team makes everything worth it.”

Prior to Starliner, she was a weight engineer for the development phases of the 777X aircraft. She monitored the aircraft weight and center of gravity and helped create a new weight estimation tool. Because of her work on Starliner and 777X, she was awarded in 2018 with the Outstanding Young Weight Engineer Ed Payne Award through the Society of Weight Engineering. 

She also participated in a Boeing summer internship in Washington performing fluid pressure analysis for the 747 program while working on her master’s degree from Texas A&M University in thermodynamics/fluid dynamics. She received her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Wyoming. 

Sandberg became interested in weight and mass properties after being hired by Boeing following a job fair at Texas A&M. She was intrigued after later talking with a weights manager. She thought it would be interesting to work with data and learn about all aspects of a vehicle.

Luckily for Sandberg, she’s always loved math and science and knew early on she wanted to become an engineer like her sister, who works for a NASA contractor in Houston. As an undergrad, Sandberg attended the NASA Academy Leadership and Research Program at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, participating in cryogenic testing and thermal tri-support testing for a scientific balloon-borne observatory that studied patterns of light left over from the period following the Big Bang.

But her love of stars and space started when she was even younger. Her aunt and uncle belonged to an astronomical society and she would go with them to “star parties” — looking at stars in the beautiful clear Wyoming sky.

“There is a lot of universe out there that we don’t know much about. It’s pretty incredible,” Sandberg said.

Lori Sandberg Starliner's Lori Sandberg in the wheat fields near her parents’ home where she grew up in Wyoming. When she’s not working, she enjoys running in half marathons and occasionally marathons. (Courtesy Lori Sandberg)