Inside Apollo mission control, from the eyes of the first woman on the job

In the 1960s and '70s, Poppy Northcutt planned the vital flight trajectories that got astronauts home from their missions to the moon.

By Erin Blakemore
Published 19 Jul 2019, 13:38 BST
Engineer Poppy Northcutt speaks with a colleague inside NASA mission control in Houston, Texas, in 1969.
Engineer Poppy Northcutt speaks with a colleague inside NASA mission control in Houston, Texas, in 1969.
Photograph by TRW/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Poppy Northcutt was serious, preoccupied by the lunar landing plans she checked over and over again for good measure. As an engineer for NASA’s mission planning and analysis support team, she was responsible for getting astronauts home from orbit and the moon during multiple Apollo missions.

Creating and perfecting that return trajectory was no easy feat—especially in the scramble to fulfill President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1961 mandate to land humans on the moon by the end of the decade, which accelerated NASA’s lunar ambitions.

“The control centre really had not had adequate time to train,” she recalls. “[They had] no time at all, to be honest.”

For Northcutt and her team, this meant working long hours under enormous pressure while figuring out how to return astronauts from a celestial body that hadn’t yet been adequately mapped. During Apollo 8, the first successful crewed mission to orbit the moon and return to Earth, her team created a return trajectory and refined it in real time using relatively primitive computing tools. Complicating matters, astronauts had to perform those return manoeuvres when the spacecraft was behind the moon and out of communications range.

“JFK didn’t say the mission was to land on the moon. He said land on the moon and safely back here,” Northcutt says. “You didn’t have a successful mission until you were safely back.”

Media frenzy

Her pioneering work ultimately contributed to the success of numerous lunar expeditions, all while she was fielding media attention for her historic role as the first woman working as an engineer inside mission control.

“I felt the pressure to make sure that the word got out there that women do this work,” she says.

But if you’d opened a newspaper during her time with NASA, you might have come away with a different impression than the one she was hoping for.

“The Blonde at Mission Control,” blared one nationally syndicated headline. Another news piece from The Record of Hackensack, New Jersey, referred to her as “NASA’s Texas rose.” And when she sat down with an ABC broadcaster in 1968 to talk about her work on the Apollo missions, he asked the 25-year-old engineer about her looks instead.

“How much attention do men in mission control pay to a pretty girl wearing miniskirts?” host Jules Bergman asked her. “It’s been charged that when you walk into the mission operations control room, the mission grinds to a screeching halt.”

Now, when the former engineer turned women’s rights advocate turned criminal defence attorney looks back on her historic career, she sees an infuriating disconnect between her accomplishments and the era’s ability to acknowledge them.

“The whole society discouraged me” from a career in engineering, she recalls. Nevertheless, when she graduated early from what was then the University of Texas with a degree in mathematics, she knew she wanted to work in the space program, and in 1965 she got a job crunching numbers for NASA through TRW, one of the space agency’s contractors.

“My job title was ‘computress’—a gendered computer,” she recalls.

Computresses were subordinate to all-male teams of engineers. Even worse, Northcutt realised she wouldn’t be allowed to work overtime—a byproduct of laws that restricted women's hours on the job. She knew her inability to work as many hours as her male colleagues would prevent her from being promoted. She did it anyway, foregoing pay for the chance to prove herself. Northcutt’s gamble reaped dividends when she was promoted to the all-male technical staff, pushing her into a more prominent role in the huge collaborative race to beat the U.S.S.R. to the moon.

Northcutt and her colleagues didn’t program the computers that governed any given mission; they created a program that was then input to mission control computers by IBM. Sometimes, parts of the code got lost in that translation.

“Interesting little bugs kept showing up,” Northcutt recalls. “A small or inconsequential error could be fatal.”

That lesson was driven home during the disastrous Apollo 13 mission, when Northcutt and team had to troubleshoot their return-to-Earth program to get those astronauts home safely. The control centre—a private room down the hall from the mission control seen on TV—was crowded by personnel who had escaped the cameras to smoke and blow off steam.

“We had people pacing around and being a pain in the neck,” she says. “Everybody was pretty stressed.”

Sense of purpose

Meanwhile, Northcutt was garnering more media attention, and while her male colleagues treated her with respect, the press often didn’t. Neither did some of the people closest to her. At one point, her father told her he was proud of her appearing in newspapers—and that the only thing that would make him prouder was if he could see her engagement announced in the local paper.

“All it did was radicalise me,” she laughs. “I guess I just didn’t get the message.”

When she read about the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970, she told her boss she’d be taking the day off to march. Soon, she was a full-blown activist, joining the National Organisation for Women and serving as Houston’s first women’s advocate. Eventually, her work fighting for equal opportunities for women led her away from engineering. In the 1980s, she became a criminal defence attorney, using her law degree to continue agitating for civil rights.

Northcutt acknowledges that she was one of the lucky ones—though she was promoted and paid well, her work was possible only because of the army of low-paid women workers, many of them women of colour, who remained “hidden figures” while she stood in front of the cameras.

“The people who were ... really being discriminated weren't me,” she says. “They were the other women.”

And as she looks back on her historic role in the Apollo missions, she is keenly aware of what hasn’t changed for women in the past 50 years.

“In some ways it’s better, and in others it’s much worse,” she says, citing the wage theft, pay inequity, and sexual harassment many women still experience in the workplace. Still, she says, women should harness the same thing that helped her endure the frequently sexist spotlight: a sense of purpose and a willingness to snatch at opportunities to highlight their work.

“It’s not going to be easy, but don’t stay hidden,” she says. “Don’t try to be invisible, because your visibility helps other women.”

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