An Apollo Engineer’s Remarkable Career in Spaceflight
At dawn on July 15, 1969, 24 hours before the launch of Apollo 11, Ann Montgomery finished stowing all the equipment in the command module for the last time. As lead crew systems engineer, she had tested all the equipment for the command module and the lunar module with the astronauts—in the lab, in the altitude chamber, and on the launch pad for the countdown simulation.
She had stowed the lunar module equipment one final time, packing the lunar rock boxes and TV camera Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would use on the moon. Now she emerged from the command module, atop the immense Saturn V rocket, and looked out from her perch 320 feet above Kennedy Space Center. “I saw a beautiful sunrise over the ocean from the launch pad,“ she recalls. “We were done, we were confident in our work, and it was a beautiful morning.”
Montgomery, now retired, still lives near Kennedy Space Center, close enough to see launches to this day. When we meet to talk about her memories of the Apollo 11 mission, we chat outside at a marina near her home.
When she joined NASA in 1968, it was a transformative, but divisive time for the country. The Apollo program was in full swing, but so was the Vietnam war. Defense contractors were competing with NASA for math graduates, like her, as well as science and engineering graduates. She remembers attending a job interview at Dow Chemical, which manufactured napalm, where protesters were lying all over the floor.
At NASA, she interviewed with several groups, including Mechanical Systems. Formerly, all crew systems engineers were based at Johnson Space Center, but after the Apollo 1 fire, in which three astronauts were killed, NASA wanted a crew systems representative at Kennedy Space Center. The 21-year-old Montgomery got the job.
“My boss walked me into the crew systems lab and basically said I ran it. Then he left me there,” she says, laughing. “Nobody had ever done this job, because Kennedy didn’t have a crew systems rep before. Suddenly, they did and it was me.”
As head of crew systems, she was responsible for testing the loose equipment the astronauts would use during each mission. During each test, the astronauts would handle the equipment and fit it all together, and engineers would then fix any problems.
One of the only women engineers, she was ignored by Johnson Space Center’s male engineers, teased by technicians, and challenged by inspectors. On her first mission, Apollo 7, a guard refused her entry onto the launch pad. She was forced to wear dresses in meetings,so she executed four or five high-speed outfit changes a day into pants for the altitude chamber, or a bunny suit for the launch pad. Still, she kept her sense of humor and got on with the job. “I had two options, to sink or swim, and it turned out all right,” she smiles, “but there were definitely bad days.”
On one such day, she watched an Apollo astronaut connect the male ends of two cables together, bending all the pins. “He knew what he’d done, but said we’d installed a bad cable,” she says. “I liked some of the astronauts a lot, but some were real jerks.”
Preparations for Apollo 11, her fifth mission in 10 months, began in May 1969. After the equipment was tested in the lab, Montgomery stowed everything in the lunar module and the command module. The astronauts then sat in the spacecraft and tested everything in the altitude chamber. “That simulated the space environment and problems were often discovered,” she says. Everything was removed and cleaned, and adjustments were made before it was repacked for the crew to test it during the countdown simulation. Any problems were fixed before the equipment was packed one last time for the launch.
Montgomery has a photo of her with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong beside the lunar descent module. “We were testing and stowing the equipment, including the lunar rock boxes to collect samples, the lunar tools and the lunar TV camera.” The astronauts brought the filled rock boxes back to earth, but she reminds me that the lunar descent module and its equipment are still on the moon today.
After her final all-night shift stowing the command module, she didn’t see the launch itself, but she listened on a headset in the spacecraft control room. “You had to remain on your console, but I couldn’t do much by then anyway. Once the astronauts had plugged in their oxygen and communications umbilicals, we just hoped we’d done everything right.”
Given the mission’s immense stakes, I wondered what the atmosphere was like. Were people incredibly nervous? “Not really,” she says. ”Every procedure had been inspected twice and signed off by three engineering teams. You ended up feeling confident, because there was a rigorous process that got you to the end.”
Five days later, she watched the moon landing in the same way as millions of others around the world: on TV, with her husband Brian. It was a heady feeling. “A lot of my time and effort went up in that vehicle,” she says. “I was 22 years old and I knew we were making history. In my small way, I’d helped in the first mission that landed on another planet.” Even so, she doesn’t think that recognition for NASA’s triumph was evenly distributed. “We always felt that Johnson Space Center got all the glory, but we were the ones that made sure everything on Apollo 11 worked,” she laughs.
Montgomery worked on all the remaining Apollo missions, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, and Skylab. In 1979, she became facility manager of the Orbiter Processing Facility, the huge hanger where Space Shuttles were prepared between missions. “I’d just got this big job when I announced that we were adopting [her son Keith]. Seven months later, I had another baby [her daughter Sally], so yeah, 1979 was a big year.”
In 1986, she became NASA’s first woman flow director. She was responsible for returning the Columbia orbiter to flight after the Challenger accident, so it was a stressful time. “My orbiter was a disaster,” she says. “It was the oldest, heaviest orbiter and really ugly.” Its protective tile was damaged and parts had been pulled out and installed in other orbiters. There was talk that it would never fly again.
Montgomery wasn’t having that. She convinced management that Columbia could safely launch again and then directed a team of over 1,000 people to make it happen. Columbia launched on the first attempt in August 1989 and had a successful mission. “I sat next to the launch director for her launch and I was there on the runway in California when she landed and the crew came down the steps to hug me,” she says.
Later, she worked in shuttle logistics; then as director of quality assurance; and finally made safety calls on all Kennedy’s launches before she retired in 2002. She says the Columbia mission remains the highlight of her career.
We walk back to Montgomery’s house, where she shows me souvenirs spanning her 34 years at NASA. There are photos, including her with Armstrong and Aldrin from Apollo 11, and a huge stack of fabric commemorative patches, one for every NASA mission she’d worked on.
She has the iconic Men Walk On Moon cover of The New York Times from July 21, 1969 as well as a fading November 1969 clipping from Germany’s Bild newspaper, featuring a beaming Ann next to the headline Sie packet die Mond-Koffer (She packed the Moon Suitcases). One article covers her appointment as flow director for Columbia; in another, she defends her orbiter as “a good old girl” after repairs delayed launch.
In a New York Times article from 1979, ahead of the first ever shuttle mission, she was asked about her pioneering role in the shuttle program. The truth was that she’d become a space pioneer long before that. “Fifty years from now,” she explained to the reporter, ”I’ll be able to say that I worked on the first moon shot.”