It's been more than five decades since NASA first launched its Apollo Missions, but former aerospace engineer Sissy Austin still recalls that era with a look of wonder on her face as she describes those heady days.
“We were all so excited (about their work on the space mission). We'd get up each morning and say, 'This is the day we're going to beat the Russians.' We worked some nights until 11 or 12, go home, take a bath, get a nap, then be back at 6 in the morning,” she recalled. “It was exciting. And we were just so proud to be part of the team.”
Austin – born Laurel Ann Phillips to Wallace “Windmill” and Annie Laurie Phillips – graduated as valedictorian of the Jacksonville High School Class of 1959, and began studying mathematics, physics and computer science at the University of Oklahoma.
At college, she was involved with tutoring and was part of a research grant involving computers. Her hope, she said, was to get hired with a company like IBM or Hewlett-Packard and focus on working with computers.
However, last-minute plans to visit the NASA site in Houston resulted in an unexpected job offer with the independent federal agency when she helped solve an equation that stumped the team working on it.
“I had gone down my senior year for spring vacation and stayed with some of my sorority sisters, and mentioned that I would like to see NASA – at that time the site was not complete, and NASA was in temporary quarters, just all over town, a small group here, a small group there,” she recalled.
The women were able to arrange a visit through someone they knew working at the site, and during her visit, Austin encountered workers puzzled by a mathematical problem.
“I don't know how difficult it was, but they just said, 'I'm hung up on this.' And I said something like, 'Oh, let me help you' or 'Give me a pencil.' And it was just something I knew,” she recalled.
Impressed by her action, one of the team members spoke with their boss, who “visited me while I was there. And when I got back to Oklahoma, they called me and gave me an offer – I never filled out an application,” she said, adding that she was excited by the unexpected offer. “I'd gotten several other offers – a lot of sales (positions), because computer sales were just starting, and things like that, but I really wanted to work for NASA."
She began working for NASA in June 1963, mere weeks after college graduation, and “I started immediately working with the Apollo project. We developed a program over a part of the flight, which was used in real time in that part of the mission,” Austin said.
The teams at the Houston site were comprised primarily of young men, she said, because at that time, “women had the option of being a teacher, or nurse or secretary. “They hired a lot of the women as math aides or computer assistants, but I was the token woman (aerospace) engineer in the section I worked at, I think.”
Her team was responsible for orbit determination, taking data from flight patterns based on orbital pull “and we were predicting where (craft) would be at the next site where the radar would pick them up,” she said.
Compared to the advanced technology employed by NASA today, in the 1960s, computers were still in the process of development and things were done the old-fashioned way, with tools of that era.
“To give you an idea of what that was like, (watch) the movie 'Hidden Figures.' It shows you how little they had to work with at that time,” she said of the film that was set about a year before she joined NASA. “It was pretty true (in describing what the teams had to work with). I didn't have have a machine on my desk; I sat over by a big computer to multiply 2 times 3, and used my slide rule.”
She remained at NASA for a total of three years, then began working as a consultant for a private contractor with NASA, and was able to continue working with her original team.
“I was happy about the work – I loved going to work,” and the public's excitement and awe about the Apollo Missions created “just such a positive attitude during that time,” she recalled. “It was a whole nation pulling together (in support).”
On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, with U.S. astronauts the first to walk on its surface.
The public was excited about that historic event, as were the NASA teams.
“Oh! I guess we must have known it was gonna to happen; it was just a question of when they were going to give it a try,” she said. “We had the confidence; we just knew it was going to happen.”
But, Austin – who married Jeff Austin Jr. in 1971 and now serves as senior executive vice president of the family-operated Austin Bank – said “when I look back, I think, 'How'd that happen?' ”
And their Russian counterparts, whom NASA wanted to beat in the race to the moon?
Laughing, she recalled, “They (the Russians) reminded us, 'We were first in space.' ”
Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was a Soviet Air Forces pilot and cosmonaut who became the first person to travel into outer space on April 12, 1961.