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Lt. Gen. John Shaw is the 2024 A&A Distinguished Alum

Amy Sprague
April 29, 2024

Lt. Gen. John Shaw, U.S. Space Force, Retired (M.S. ‘91) is the 2024 A&A Distinguished Alum. His impressive career spans over three decades in the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force, where he emerged as a thought leader in national security and space policy.

John Shaw headshot

John Shaw

Shaw rose through the ranks, ultimately serving as the Commander of 14th Air Force and the Combined Force Space Component Command at Vandenberg Space Force Base. In this pivotal role, he was responsible for providing space capabilities to combatant commands worldwide, ensuring the nation's space superiority.

His leadership and expertise were instrumental in shaping the newly established U.S. Space Force, where he played a key role in its formation and strategic direction. Shaw's wife Tonia Shaw (B.S. ‘91) is also a University of Washington alum, having earned her undergraduate degree in Political Science. We spoke to Lt. Gen. Shaw about his time at the UW, his career, the state of national security in space and his advice for our A&A students.

Looking back, what drew you to our aeronautics and astronautics program for your master's degree?

Honestly, the primary draw was the location. After spending four years at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, I wanted to be in a cultural center, and also near an ocean. The Pacific Northwest seemed like an exciting change of scenery. With the University of Washington's strong aerospace engineering program and its association with Boeing, the decision was easy. The program's reputation for practical applications and its ties to the industry appealed to me.

Could you share some particularly influential professors and experiences from your time at the UW?

Professor Juris Vagners, who served as my academic advisor, left a lasting impact. He guided me through my thesis and set me on my professional path. I owe him a great deal of gratitude. Professor Robert Clark was another influential figure, with whom I took multiple classes. Their mentorship and the hands-on projects we worked on, like modeling the dynamics of the Boeing 777's autopilot, provided invaluable real-world experience.

How well did the UW program prepare you for advancing your career in aerospace and space operations?

The program prepared me extremely well. The association with Boeing forced the curriculum to remain practical and focused on real-world applications. I was immediately able to apply what I learned to my young officer spacecraft engineering job in the Air Force after graduation. But beyond the immediate first job, the technical foundation I gained at the UW was an invaluable asset throughout my career, particularly in understanding and communicating our mission objectives and setting goals for the organizations I led.

With the changing environment in space and national security, what key implications does this have for the next generation of aerospace students?

The metaphor I like to use is that for most of my career, operating our national security space capabilities was like running a merchant marine fleet on a benign ocean, delivering capabilities to warfighter and other users on terrestrial “shores.” However, towards the latter part of my career, that domain became contested. We've had to adapt from a merchant marine mindset to also having a navy to protect and defend our space assets.

Future engineers need to consider how we can leverage the physics of the domain and our technologies for maximum societal benefit while ensuring we maintain an advantage over potential adversaries. It's about striking a balance between exploration, commerce, and security.

As someone who has been at the forefront of space operations and policy, what perspective can you offer on the U.S. Space Force's role in safeguarding access to space?

I want to emphasize the importance of the Space Force's role in sustaining the space domain for human society. I like to say the three basic components of the universe are space, time, and mischief - that last part will always be present. Many people might think the Space Force is all about offensive capabilities like lasers and blowing things up, but its true purpose is to preserve security and enable prosperity for all by deterring bad actors and nefarious mischief, while maintaining a stable and accessible space environment.

We often take for granted how much we rely on space-based systems in our daily lives. Without them, our modern world could essentially grind to a halt or descend into chaos. Ensuring the continued availability and integrity of these vital capabilities is a critical mission that our new engineers will play a pivotal role in advancing.

How should our new engineers prepare themselves for these evolving challenges?

One of the most important qualities is insatiable curiosity. Asking questions like "How can I do this better?" or "How can I improve on what's already been done?" will be crucial as things move faster and technologies become more integrated.

Additionally, it will be difficult to be truly proficient in any technical field without an appreciation for software, predictive algorithms, deep analytics, and even artificial intelligence. Understanding and leveraging these tools, along with the core engineering principles, will be paramount.

Are there any emerging technologies that have the potential to be game-changers from offensive or defensive perspectives in space security?

One area I've been championing is the concept of on-orbit logistics and servicing. Historically, satellites have lived and died alone, taking everything they need to stay alive with them at their birth. I believe we'll eventually shift to a paradigm where an ecosystem of support and resupply becomes the norm within the Earth-Moon system and beyond. This could revolutionize how we operate and sustain our space capabilities.

Do you have any specific advice for our students as they embark on their aerospace careers?

First and foremost, follow your passion and what excites you. If you're fascinated by engineering, as I was, your life and work will be genuinely fulfilling.

Maintain a lifelong curiosity and a commitment to continuous learning. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know – and that realm of the unknown expands exponentially with age and experience.

Lastly, embrace the concept of togetherness. Successful endeavors in aerospace are rarely accomplished alone. Being part of a team and contributing to a shared vision is one of the most gratifying experiences you can have in this field.