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Apollo Engineer helps woman rise to von Braun's chair at NASA

Alex McCool was at the Wernher von Braun's Apollo team during NASA's most masculine pocket-watch era from the 1960s, and he was the top leader of the space trial program that began in the 1980s. For most of the time, the men could get the picture headed by a woman.

As the world and NASA continued to change, McCool became the mentor of Jody Singer, the first woman to serve as director of Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. Marshall is NASA's rocket propulsion center with about 6,000 federal and contract staff, and it is the center of von Braun led.

McCool has no doubt Sanger is clear and no doubt that rocket women like Singer are changing NASA for the better.

"Stronger mentally, emotionally, physically. They are interested in details and they can do the details," McCool said recently. "Women are strong and they can do things if we allow them to get out of the way. Don't tell them how to do it."

McCool, 95 and Singer recently sat on von Braun's conference table and talked about their careers and relationships. The table is now at the US Space & Rocket Center.

McCool was an original member of the Marshall staff when the NASA Center in Huntsville, Ala., Was created in 1

960, and he worked on the Saturn V rocket propulsion system and the Skylab mission that used Saturn V to launch America & # 39; s first space station. He succeeded in the spacecraft propulsion program as it was a $ 1 billion line item in NASA's budget each year.

"I learned a lot from some of the teachers we had as von Braun and the German team and what they allowed us to do," McCool said. "And I carried it over."

McCool did not talk about Saturn, Apollo or von Braun on this day. He had just seen Singer onstage with four other Marshall Directors – all men – on a "Pass The Torch" panel discussion at the rocket center. What McCool wanted to talk about was Singer's journey and what makes her special.

McCool met Singer as she led business teams for two parts of the ship's propulsion system. She was one of four leaders in the progress area led by McCool. His area of ​​responsibility included the main engines for main vessels, solid rocket boosters and the massive fuel tank.

When Singer wanted to defend the program's budget requests at NASA's Washington headquarters, McCool said she was prepared and in the way she and another women's manager handled themselves.

"She would go toe to toe with them, but it wasn't personal," he said. The room temperature never became as high as it could when two men argued for the numbers, McCool said.

Observations like that helped McCool choose Singer from the pool of applicants to the Deputy Director of the shuttle program. "She already did the job," McCool says now.

"He had an open door policy," said Singer. "He always had time to teach you things. If I asked him a question, he would never insult me."

There were not many women in the office, Singer said, and asking questions from the parent might be daunting. "Some were more receptive," she said, "some were smaller."

"Alex always took me in and said," Did you understand that meeting? Singer said. "The other thing he always wanted to ask was" What were you thinking about that meeting? "I spoke, but what did you think?" "He always told me to be on my toes not to sit right in front of me, but be involved in the meeting and think about the conversation …" said singer.

McCool never spoke first in a meeting, said singer, and he would walk around the room and steer the strong personalities at the table. "He would find ways to question," said Singer. "Not necessarily challenging them – he was not afraid to challenge them – but get them to discuss because there might have been a misunderstanding between two people. They would go out of the room friends because he took the time. "

" He would come down (to his area) and just look at me and say, "What are you thinking?" "How's it going? & # 39; & # 39; What's going on? & # 39; & # 39; Singer said," It's going around in the lead. "So I was never afraid to come to him and say, "I don't know what to do" or "I have no understanding" or "Can you explain this to me? "

McCool also taught Singer not to say" I believe "or" I think, "she said. You said what you knew.

" There has been time he really had to stand up for me (get) some jobs, "said Singer. There were times, she said, McCool had to threaten" put her own badge on the table "and step down if higher people were not willing to trust his judgment.

" You know how it feels for someone to do it, "she said. It means everything.

McCool told Singer to take time for his family and for exercise to keep her healthy." And he always taught me to treat the team with full respect, "said Singer." The team is what brings you together. If they are taken care of, they feel safe, they feel valued, they understand, and know that you are in their right to do it. "

If it sounds familiar, it's something von Braun was also famous for doing

Are more women pursued by NASA's career today? The singer says yes, but their percentage of the workforce is still about 20 percent. "I am proud to say that at Marshall Space Flight Center, it's about a 30 percent rate," she said.

Singer has a big job now developing NASA's new rocket called Space Launch System. As some powerful Washington leaders would never build, prefer to spend the money elsewhere, but it has become a key part of the Trump administration's plan to return to American astronauts for the moon.

"Flight to the Moon and Mars is hard, "McCool said." It takes leadership. Leadership (for Apollo) came from (president) Kennedy, but the second part was von Braun. He is the one who said we can beat them to the moon and he did it before Al Shepard flew. "

Pointing to Sanger, McCool added that" she's the one who's steered now. She is sitting in von Braun's chair. "

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