By W.J. Hennigan
Los Angeles Times
The gig: Wanda M. Austin, 59, is the president and chief executive of Aerospace Corp., an El Segundo brain trust for the Pentagon’s space program. Although not well known outside defense circles, it is regarded as one of the nation’s most important assets.
Classified space: For decades, Aerospace, which receives federal funds, has provided oversight for development of highly secretive spy satellites, ballistic missiles and launch vehicles. Aerospace scientists and engineers oversee the technical side of contracts awarded to defense firms to ensure the work is being done properly. It’s important work in a place where a misplaced decimal point can result is disastrous consequences for billions of dollars’ worth of intricate space hardware.
“As an engineer you want to work on those complex programs,” Austin said. “People pay attention to people working on the hard problems.”
Early days: Austin hopes her background as a black female will help her serve as a role model for young women and minorities. She was raised in a low-income Bronx neighborhood. Her father was a barber and her mother a nurse, who stressed involvement outside of school. Austin participated in the Girl Scouts and church activities.
Passion: From an early age, her favorite subject in school was math. This was due in part to arguments with English teachers in school, but Austin also liked that the answers in math can’t be disputed.
She was accepted into the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, whose graduates have gone on to win eight Nobel Prizes, six Pulitzer Prizes and eight National Medals of Science. She played volleyball and enjoyed roller-skating and gymnastics.
School: After she won a scholarship to Franklin & Marshall College, a small liberal arts college in Lancaster, Pa., she earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and figured she’d become a teacher. But later, while pursuing a master’s degree in math at the University of Pittsburgh, she tutored engineers and realized that engineers make more money.