WHEN MILLIE KRONFLY awoke in Houston on the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, she turned on her television, saw the icicles on the ground at Cape Canaveral, Fla., and knew the space shuttle Challenger couldn't possibly be blasting off that day. So, instead of going to the Mission Evaluation Room at NASA, Kronfly, then manager for Rockwell's Space Transportation Systems Division, went to work at Rockwell's offices near the Johnson Space Center.
A short while later, there was a knock on the office door where Kronfly was working. "Excuse me for interrupting," she remembers a secretary saying, "but the shuttle just blew up."
Kronfly was on the next plane and back at Rockwell's Downey space transportation systems division within hours, trying to help NASA assess just what had gone wrong with the Challenger. Although the problem didn't involve the orbiter, which Rockwell is primarily responsible for, the accident still caused "a lot of introspection" on everyone's part, she says. "It was horrible," recalls Kronfly, 38, now Rockwell's director of flight systems design and performance. "The real shock of it didn't really hit me until we successfully launched the next one."
"The first eight minutes" of the Sept. 29, 1988, launch of Discovery, she says, "was absolute pins and needles. I was so exhausted just trying to get through the first 73 seconds, which is where our last mission ended. Flying again was a great uplifting event," she says in an interview at Rockwell's space transportation division. "It was a picture-perfect mission."
It's not surprising the accident affected her so. The space shuttle is designed, developed and built, as well as prepared for flight, at Rockwell, in close concert with NASA. And Kronfly is an engineering department head responsible for overseeing the shuttle in specific areas, including designing and analyzing systems for guidance, navigation and flight control. Pretty impressive for a woman who once thought she'd become a math teacher.
Although women in engineering are no longer a rarity--at Rockwell, for example, they make up about 20% of the engineering population, about average throughout the industry--that was certainly not true when Kronfly was hired 15 years ago. Then, there were only two other women in the entire engineering division. "I looked at those two as having been the trailblazers," she says.
Kronfly is modest about her own achievements, but she moved quickly into the ranks of upper management, becoming the youngest supervisor, manager and director the company had ever promoted along the way She's now one of 17 directors at the aerospace firm.
Kronfly's fascination with space started early: She remembers drawing pictures of rocket engines and rocket ships as a young girl. "I was fascinated with engines for some reason," recalls Kronfly, who has a refreshingly open way of talking. "But I really didn't have any inkling I'd end up in this field."
She grew up on a chicken ranch in Hemet in the '60s. Inspired by a favorite teacher in high school, she decided to become a math teacher. Along with her three sisters and a brother, Kronfly says she was encouraged by their parents to get an education and become independent.
But after graduating from Whittier College with a degree in math education in 1972, she discovered that there was a glut of math teachers on the market and began looking at other options. A friend suggested that she try Rockwell, which had just landed the NASA space shuttle contract. At 23, Kronfly was hired to work in a software group at Rockwell, a job requiring her math skills; she was one of a handful of females in the department at the time. Being one of a few women in a sea of men was a situation Kronfly knew well.
"When you took math as much as I did, you got used to being the only girl in the class," she recalls with a laugh. "Actually, it was a blast! It wasn't inhibiting and I never had a problem." What she did face at Rockwell, Kronfly remembers, is a lot of teasing about her age, which she says she took as a "normal reaction" from the many veteran Rockwell employees she first worked with.
In the engineering field, Kronfly says, respect from peers is established with one's technical credibility. "They'll patronize you until you gain their respect," she says. In her early days at the firm, as she was "growing up" at Rockwell, Kronfly frequently turned to her three sisters for support. After she'd been at the company for some time, it became apparent that she'd have to take some engineering courses to "keep up with the guys," as she puts it.