Jackie Parker says she is not a freak and was never a child wonder.
Yet she started college at 14, applied to be an astronaut at 16, and two years later she became the youngest flight controller in the history of manned spaceflight.
"I still don't think I'm weird because I know how I got here," said the young woman who turned 19 on July 4. Her job at the data processing systems console will include monitoring and responding to the five onboard computers during the launch phase and first few hours of orbit of the space shuttle flights scheduled to begin in 1980.
Miss Parker is one of only seven women among the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's 81 flight controllers who are working on space shuttle flight simulations at Johnson Space Center here.
Although women have worked on various aspects of space flight for NASA in the past, Miss Parker is among the first group of women to monitor a console in the Mission Control Center.
The first woman to work in a technical role during a space flight was Poppy Northcutt, a return-to-earth specialist for a NASA contractor. She worked in the flight support room during the Apollo 8 mission in 1968.
Recently three women were among the 24 flight controllers who worked more than a year on Skylab's re-entry, and it was a woman, Cindy Major, 27, who sent the final command to start the tumble maneuver for Skylab's reentry.
"There are no problems now with being a woman at NASA," Miss Parker said, because there are now six female astronaut candidates. "But I have talked to some men who said that when women first came on jobs out here, the men felt that a woman was replacing a man with a family. But now the ground has been broken," she said. Miss Parker finds, however, that those who don't know her have trouble thinking of someone her age as mature.
"I consider myself a woman," Miss Parker said, flashing a quick smile. "But, I heard this tour guide telling people that there was a woman flight controller who was only 18, and then she laughed and said you could hardly call her a woman. I couldn't believe she said that!"
Most of her friends in Houston -- with whom she sails, skis, disco dances and dates -- are in their late twenties or older. She has dated men far older than she is but said she is too young to get serious, and "they usually don't want to anyway. The gap just doesn't seem to be there."
"Actually I've been dating since I began college at 14," she said. "My father was very strict and wasn't going to let me, but I put my foot down and said no dating, no college.
"He snickered and said OK because he didn't think anybody would ask a 14- or 15-year=old out anyway. I thought my father was going to fall over when a 21-year-old guy asked me out the first week." It was Miss Parker's father, Dr. William Dale Parker, a former NASA aerospace scientist, who gave his dauther with the genius-level IQ the self-confidence she needed.
"He never pushed me, but he wanted to give me support," she said. "I wasn't any child wonder in school, I thought, but here I was skipping grades and doing things I always heard that child wonders do, people that you read about in newspapers. People who have been reading newspapers since they were 3.
"Finally I saw that my father was right. I didn't have to be a freak."
Miss Parker skipped the ninth, eleventh and twelfth grades and earned a degree in computer science at Florida Technological University (now University of Central Florida) in three years.
If Miss Parker had a problem in college, it was with mathematics. She entered as a math major after having had only six weeks of algebra and one course in geometry. It was during college that Miss Parker decided she wanted to be an astronaut.
"At first I wanted to be an airline stewardess, and then I wanted to be a pilot, anything to do with flying," she said. "Then I realized I could be anything I wanted to be and I thought, why not an astronaut!"
When Apollo 11 was launched in 1969, Miss Parker's family lived only 15 miles from Cape Canaveral. They watched the lunar landing on television, and Miss Parker visualized herself in one of the spacesuits.
In 1977 she visited the Johnson Space Center in Houston to ask about becoming an astronaut and eventually became one of 1,700 women who applied. "I received a very nice letter saying that I wasn't qualified," she said, "but they did take me seriously."
Last summer she went to work at Johnson Space Center as an intern computer systems analyst, and in September she was hired as a flight controller.
"I will be an astronaut someday," she says confidently, and continues to prepare herself. She got her pilot's license when she was 17, before she could drive, and would now like to learn aerobatics.
"I'll make it," she said. "I'm lucky and I always happen to be in the right place at the right time.
"Besides, it's great here. I can forget how old I am."