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Stellar work led her to top aerospace post

Wanda Austin will head the scientists and engineers who provide oversight for all U.S. rocket launches.

August 19, 2007|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

With a humdrum name and an equally eye-glazing office building, Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo is as obscure as any company can be. It even describes itself in the most ho-hum of ways, saying merely that it provides "technical analyses for space programs."

But hidden from public view behind the main office tower is a sprawling campus with 15 buildings -- many of them windowless with top-security doors -- housing 4,000 of the nation's top scientists, researchers and engineers.

For nearly half a century, the federally funded research center has quietly helped develop almost every major U.S. military and civil space program. No U.S. rocket or satellite has ever been launched without Aerospace scientists poring over every detail and guiding its development.

In January, Wanda M. Austin, 52, will take the helm of what is considered one of the nation's most important assets -- and until her appointment last month one of the least known.

The announcement that Austin would become the head of Aerospace thrust the company into the limelight and shook up the staid aerospace industry that long has been dominated by white men. No major U.S. aerospace concern -- nor one so influential -- has ever been led by a woman or an African American.

"This is big news because this is an industry somewhat dominated by men," says Gary Pulliam, Aerospace's vice president for civil and commercial operations.

For decades, though, Aerospace has preferred to remain largely invisible because much of the work it does is classified. It has provided oversight for development of highly secretive spy satellites, ballistic missiles and launch vehicles.

"It is the brain trust and the technical competence underpinning the nation's entire military space effort," said Loren Thompson, a defense policy analyst for the Lexington Institute. "Without it, the U.S. government would not have a successful space program."

Much like the company she will lead, Austin appears unassuming, though her life tells another story. Whether growing up in the concrete apartment projects or working in the mahogany boardroom, Austin has stood out.

In the low-income Bronx neighborhood where her father was a barber and her mother a nurse, Austin wore Girl Scout uniforms and took the bus to watch Broadway plays -- something few of her friends ever got to do.

"It was not typical and it was certainly not typical for a girl," Austin says.

For her part, Austin downplays the significance of her gender and race, saying only that she hopes her background will help her serve as a role model for young women and minorities, particularly those growing up in lower-income neighborhoods.

"There were no engineers, no role models who said science is where a young woman could focus her attention," Austin recalls from her childhood.

"But I was fortunate in that I had parents who never set boundaries and never set limits. They said if this is what you want to do, go work toward it and we'll help in any way we can."

Her parents also made sure Austin was exposed to activities that few in her neighborhood got to experience, such as camping, visiting museums and watching plays. It was a way to open their girl's eyes to possibilities outside the neighborhood.

"I lived in the projects, inner-city living, where most kids never left the two- or three-block area," Austin says. "You're in New York City but all that the city offered seemed like a lifetime away."

Intrigued by math, because "no one can question the answer," Austin was accepted into the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, whose graduates have gone on to win more Nobel and Pulitzer prizes than graduates of any other secondary school in the world.

Initially, Austin figured she'd become a teacher because "it seemed like a reasonable profession for a girl to aspire to."

Austin enrolled at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., a small liberal arts college with 1,700 students, mainly because she got a scholarship. "My parents rented a small van, and the first time I saw the college was when they pulled up to drop me off," Austin says. The scholarship from Franklin & Marshall "was the only way for me to go to college."

Later, while pursuing a master's degree in math at the University of Pittsburgh, Austin decided to also study engineering. She was tutoring engineers in math when she realized that not only do engineers make more money but she could do it just as well.

Shortly after graduating and working for another Los Angeles aerospace company, Austin became a victim of the industry's cyclical downturn in the late 1970s and was laid off.

It turned out for the better, Austin says, because it led her to pursue a job at Aerospace, where she has been for the last 26 years, steadily climbing the management ladder. While working at Aerospace and rearing two young children, Austin earned a doctorate in systems engineering from USC.

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