At 21, Ann Montgomery Became a Lead Engineer at NASA, Managing the Cameras and Other Crucial Gear Used on the Moon
Montgomery worked closely with the Apollo astronauts to train them to use handheld tools and equipment on the moon
The army of workers who made NASA’s Apollo program possible, sending a human being to the moon for the first time, included hundreds of thousands of people—from the doctors who screened the astronauts to the crawler-transporter drivers who towed the Saturn V rocket to the launch pad. And among the nearly endless tasks that had to be completed for the Apollo lunar landing, one woman spearheaded a critical engineering project: testing all the small gear the astronauts would take with them to the moon.
As lead crew systems engineer at Kennedy Space Center during Apollo, Ann Montgomery was responsible for testing hundreds of pieces of loose equipment that the astronauts used during each mission. The gear included power cables and oxygen lines that hooked into the astronauts’ space suits, flight logs, an optical site used for docking in space, and even the urinal and fecal bags used by the crew.
For Apollo 11, Montgomery processed the handheld tools, TV camera and the lunar sample return containers that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took to the surface of the moon. Following extensive tests in the lab, all the equipment was tested again with the astronauts in an altitude chamber, and then again on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center before it was cleared to blast off to another world.
After working on the Apollo missions, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and Skylab, Montgomery became facility manager of the Orbiter Processing Facility in 1979—the huge hangar where the space shuttles were prepared between missions. She processed the first ever space shuttle flight, and in 1986, she became NASA’s first female flow director of a shuttle, responsible for returning the Columbia orbiter to flight after the space shuttle Challenger broke apart shortly after launch.
Smithsonian spoke with Ann Montgomery about what it was like to work on the Apollo missions as a 21-year-old woman, the trials and the triumphs of Apollo 11, and some of the other highlights of her 34-year NASA career.
How did you get your first job at NASA?
I luckily graduated with a degree in math at a time when the job market for technical people was wide open. At NASA, the Apollo program was in high gear, and the entire agency was hiring. I did well enough in my first interview to be sent to talk to three supervisors at Kennedy Space Center. One was in the facilities area, one was in the spacecraft computer support area, and the final one was with Harry Shoaf and the mechanical systems group.
Everyone else I interviewed with, either at NASA or with commercial companies, spent their time telling me I would not have to work overtime, I would not have to hear dirty language, and I could have a secure, dull little job. The unsaid message was that until I married and quit, I could have a nice little job and probably help their diversity profile.
Harry was different. The crew systems job sounded like fun. He promised me I would get to travel and meet astronauts, and he said he had no doubts that I could do the job. I believed him and went to work for NASA a week after I graduated from college.
What did being lead crew systems engineer for the Apollo program involve?
I worked on all the loose equipment the astronauts used during each mission, such as their oxygen and communications umbilicals, their tools, the lunar rock boxes [for Apollo 11] and their TV cameras.
The equipment would come into the lab and we would test it and fit it together. Then we’d bring the astronauts in so they could try it all out. You can spend all this money on hardware, but when a camera bracket doesn’t fit the camera, you run into trouble. We had to check every seal, every fit, every serial number.
Then we would load everything into the lunar module and the command module and the astronauts would sit in the vehicle and run a test in the altitude chamber. Then we’d take it all off, clean it and fix any problems. We’d load everything back into the lunar and command modules for the count down simulation, remove everything again, and finally put it back in for launch. At each stage, you’d fix any problems that arose.
Nobody had ever done this job at Kennedy Space Center before. The crew's equipment had not been controlled tightly in the past, and after the Apollo 1 fire, they had gone for a period without launching. Review committees felt that the Johnson Space Center engineers who had taken care of this equipment were too influenced by the astronaut corps, and they wanted Kennedy Space Center’s participation and supervision to counteract this.
How did you fit in with the rest of the engineers and employees at NASA?
As a 21-year-old woman, I was the one who was sent to [test this equipment]. I was ignored by the Johnson engineers, teased mercilessly by the technicians and constantly challenged by the NASA inspectors. I would come to talk to Harry, and he would tell me I was in charge, give me a little more encouragement, and send me back. We also had to wear dresses to meetings, so I had to change clothes four, five or six times a day to work in the altitude chamber or on the launch pad.
On my first mission, Apollo 7, I went out to the launch pad and got to the gate, and the guard said, “I’m sorry, women can’t go on the launch pad.” I showed him my badge, and the contractor I was with, who desperately needed my signature, petitioned him as well. Still no luck. This went on for about 30 minutes. Finally, I said, “Who do you need to call to let me on the launch pad?” He said the director of launch operations at KSC [Rocco Petrone]. I said call the director of launch operations. So this guy takes my badge and goes into his little guard station and was in there a long time, and I didn’t even see him pick up the telephone. Eventually, he comes out and says, “Ma’am, you’ve got an APIP [Apollo Personnel Investigation Program] badge. You can go on the launch pad.” I thought, “I’ve been telling you that!” But I just said thank you and we went on the launch pad, and we did our business.
But the job was great for my career. My equipment interfaced with all the other systems, and I worked on both the command module and the lunar module equipment when most people worked on one vehicle or the other. I was included in meetings well above my pay grade because nobody else had a clue what I was doing. Harry's boss was not supportive of a female engineer at all, but I basically bypassed him by being in meetings with the next level of management and speaking up when prodded.
At that time, there was a launch every couple of months. What were the hours like?
On the Apollo program, we usually finished stowing the command module about sunrise 24 hours before a launch. You would work crazy hours, go out for a launch, then you would scrub, and then go to all the meetings afterwards to determine what you’ve got to do to launch again. Then a lot of times, you would go home and then come back at the same weird hour during the night and do it all again.
Did you know the astronauts very well?
I saw them quite a lot; some I liked, some I didn’t like. I remember my first astronaut. My boss Harry raced cars with Gordon Cooper. I hadn’t been there very long and Harry said, “Do you want to meet an astronaut?” I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” I met Cooper and he was lovely to me, but some of the astronauts tried to embarrass me in the lab and make off-color jokes about the equipment. Cooper would know the names of everyone who worked in our lab, every technician, everyone who worked in logistics, but some of them were rather arrogant.
What do you remember most vividly about Apollo 11?
I watched it with my husband Brian on television just like everyone else, but there is so much more to it than that. All the crew’s equipment came through our lab in the Operations and Checkout building. The crew trained in Houston and had seen copies of most of the equipment there, but the first place they touched the real items and got to play with them was in the lab.
We put all of the items out for what we called a bench review. The crew came in to look at them all and familiarize themselves with each item. If there were three cameras and two brackets to hold them, they wanted to fit each camera to each bracket so there would be no surprises later. Of course, like good engineers, we had already fitted each of them together before the crew arrived and hoped they liked our work.
The inspectors walked around behind the crew and took notes on their comments, which were then formally documented. We had to answer every comment, and they had to be approved by the crew's representatives before the item could be put on board.
Most of the comments were valid, but one time an inspector with no sense of humor documented the fact that an astronaut wanted green barf bags. It was hard to convince management that he didn't really mean it but was trying to be funny—what a waste of tax dollars if I hadn't been successful!
What were the next steps to get everything ready for flight?
The next time the crew saw the command module and lunar module equipment was in the altitude chambers. We took all of the equipment, packed it in its launch position, and the crew came in for what was called a crew compartment fit and functional. I vividly remember stowing the lunar module for its first altitude chamber test because it happened right before my wedding. Note to future brides: Don’t work a 24-hour shift the day before you are married!
They got in the vehicle and tried out everything. Once we had solved any serious problems, we repacked the lockers, and the crew got into their suits and performed the altitude chamber test. The altitude chambers were like big pressure cookers that were pumped down to low pressure rather than overpressurized. Once this test was over, we took all of the equipment out, returned it to the lab and formally addressed every problem. Some were even caused by the test itself. Tissues were used, food was spilled, and heavy-handed astronauts broke things. That meant more explanations to management.
The only equipment that got no altitude chamber test was the equipment on the pallet of the descent stage of the lunar module. This included the lunar rock boxes, the lunar tools and the lunar TV camera. Most was not powered equipment, so we simply stowed it on the pallet, let the astronauts handle it, corrected its problems and put it back in place.
The memorial plaque on the leg of the lunar module also came through our lab. I did touch it, but they cleaned it so thoroughly that very little of my fingerprint is left.
Where were you for the launch itself?
I sat in the spacecraft control room in the Operations and Checkout building on a headset, but because we had no equipment powered up, there was really nothing to do or say, and I remember being extremely bored. Plus I missed going outside to see the launch itself. Once the vehicle cleared the pad, we were like any other spectator. I watched the moon landing on TV, but I knew what the astronauts were seeing, what they were doing, and hoped we had done everything right, because if they complained, I hadn't done my job.
Did the significance of the mission sink in at the time?
It really did. I was 22 years old, and I really felt that I was making history. You really knew it.
By the way, since Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific, I never saw it or any of our equipment again. With the old food and human waste still on board and sealed in, unpacking the command module was really not a job I wanted anyway. The lunar descent module and most of its equipment are still on the moon, and the ascent stage is permanently gone—but somewhere in a museum, some of the command module equipment I packed and the lunar rock boxes remain.
About a decade later, you were still working at NASA and became facility manager of the Orbiter Processing Facility. What did that involve?
I was responsible for the huge hangar where shuttles were processed in between missions. When the first space shuttle, Columbia, arrived in 1979, the thermal protection system was certainly not ready for flight. Most of the shuttle was covered with tile and over 20,000 unique silica blocks needed to be custom fit. I was responsible for housing all the extra people and equipment we brought to Florida to do that. Eventually I organized the design and construction of a permanent tile processing facility north of the Orbiter Processing Facility and directly across the tow way.
For a while, I was also in charge of runways. Right before the Challenger mission that exploded, management wanted an emergency runway in Morocco, so I sent my assistant to Morocco and worked with her to set it up. I remember calling the State Department to see if it was even safe to send my assistant to Morocco. I ended up looking after lots of bits and pieces and added Moroccan runways to my resume!
After the Apollo program, what was your most memorable work at NASA?
As flow director, I headed the team at Kennedy Space Center that prepared Columbia for launch. I ended up with a particularly stressful mission. The Challenger had exploded, and we were making massive safety modifications to all the vehicles. Columbia was the oldest and by far the heaviest orbiter. Parts had been removed and it looked awful. They almost considered mothballing it.
I convinced management that it was a credible vehicle, and we went from a handful of people working on Columbia to well over a thousand. A big milestone was the first time power was applied—we could power up, and sparks did not shoot out everywhere. We had quite a celebration when we finally rolled the vehicle from the Orbiter Processing Facility to the Vehicle Assembly Building.
Launch day itself had dismal weather, but Bob Sieck [the launch director] found a hole in the clouds and we launched on the first attempt. We had a successful mission, and I had a lot to do with that. Returning Columbia to flight was probably the most satisfying part of my career. I still feel like I made a difference to an important mission and program.