Numerous unsung women, from computer engineers and mathematicians to secretaries and seamstresses, helped put a man on the moon. Here are the stories of some of those women
All 12 people who walked on the moon were men. But among the 400,000 people who made it possible, there were numerous unsung women, from computer engineers and mathematicians to secretaries and seamstresses. Today, as America contemplates a return to the moon, there is resolve to ensure women aren’t in the background, but are instead the astronauts leading the way. Fifty years after Apollo, David Smith tells the stories of some of the women who helped put a man on the moon.
Jamye Flowers Coplin
A 21-year-old woman from Texas was responsible for making sure that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were prepared and in the right frame of mind to make history on the moon.
Jamye Flowers, who had joined Nasa straight out of school, was Apollo 11’s crew secretary, a position that required a troubleshooting all-rounder willing to work long hours.
For Apollo 11, Flowers was grateful to have been at the right place at the right time. In an interview for the Nasa Johnson Space Center oral history project in 2008, she recalled: “As a young woman, I was extremely lucky [and] I did feel like it was a golden opportunity for me.
“It was probably years later that I fully recognized how lucky I had been, because it was [my] first job, I had nothing to compare it to. It was just at that time within Nasa that women were given opportunities other than secretarial. I took summer classes, night school classes while I was working there. But the job became so demanding that it was just so difficult to do that part-time. But [it wasn’t until after I left that] Nasa really opened up and gave opportunities to women.”
Flowers recalled visiting the launchpad at night when the Saturn V rocket was lit up. “We would try to make a good luck trip to get as close to the pad as we could, and just sit there and soak it all in and say a few little prayers for good flights and everything. That became a ritual for us to do that. I remember being out there that night on 11. It was exciting.”
Margaret Hamilton grew up in the midwest and says it was her British father who taught her to ask “what if” and “why not”. She started her career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1959 but then got wind that Nasa was aiming for the moon. “The ad made it sound so exciting, I decided to go find out more about it,” she recalled in a recent interview with the Guardian.
Hamilton became the lead programmer on the groundbreaking Apollo guidance computer, which had less capacity than today’s mobile phones, and worked on every crewed mission (she names Apollo 8 and Apollo 11 as particular favorites). She led the team that developed the inflight software for the command and lunar modules and came up with the idea to call her discipline “software engineering”.
She was also a woman in a man’s world. “I didn’t even think about it at the time, but the culture was different,” she said at the headquarters of Draper, a Boston engineering company that received the Apollo program’s first major contract. “When I first got there I was the only one in that project. If you look at photos of the engineers back then, you can hardly find a woman in there.
“People say, ‘Well, there were women’. Yeah, but they weren’t doing technical jobs,” she said.
Hamilton, who often brought her daughter, Lauren, to work with her in the evenings and on weekends, recalled that as time went on, the women’s liberation movement asserted itself. “There was a whole thing that started, even at MIT, and they wanted only women around to join. I was curious because one of the people worked for me, and so I remember going and they were saying all these horrible things that men did.
“Then they wanted me to speak up at this huge conference at MIT, to talk to the women; I said, ‘Well, what about the men?’ ‘Oh, we’re not inviting them, this is only for women.’ I said, ‘If it’s only for women I’m not going to be in favour of another kind of discrimination.’ Either everybody’s involved or they’re not, and I didn’t give my talk because I thought it had to do with fairness for all.”
Hamilton set up her own software company and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2016. Now 82, she uses email but does not have any social media accounts. She is encouraged by women’s advances in the workplace, and in space, but warns that a backlash is under way.
“There are many problems in the culture today that are worse than yesterday because women are more of a threat to some people,” she added. “They weren’t a threat then; they were an oddity. Because of social media and everything there’s a lot of good stuff and a lot of bad stuff. If the good stuff wins over then there’s hope. So how do we fight that? How do we make that work?”
Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, in the era of Jim Crow segregation. She demonstrated a rare talent for maths at school and was encouraged by her father to go further. “And he always said, you will go to college,” she said in a TV interview in 2011. “I didn’t know what a college was.”
She did go to college, graduating in 1937 then working as a teacher at a black school in Virginia. In 1953, married with children, she joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ Langley laboratory. She spent four years analyzing flight test data and joined the massive effort to compete with the Soviet Union after its satellite, Sputnik, shook up the cold war rivalry.
Johnson’s trajectory analysis was crucial to the pioneering missions of Alan Shepard and John Glenn and then the Apollo program, in particular the synching of the lunar lander with the command and service module. She also worked on the space shuttle program.
Johnson retired from Langley in 1986. Her work at Nasa was spotlighted thanks to Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures, a book (and later, a film) that highlights the work of Johnson and other African American “human computers” in the space program. Aged 97, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama.
In a recent interview with the American Association of Retired Persons, Johnson was asked how she coped with the discrimination of that time. “My colleagues and I were committed to the work,” she said. “We found different ways to deal with the segregation.
“In the cafeteria, we just ignored the sign [for segregated seating]. But at some point, we started eating at our desks. When we left work, our lives were definitely separate – separate communities, separate schools for our children, separate grocery stores and churches. But then we’d be back with our colleagues on the job. People are people. My father’s advice helped. He said: ‘You’re no better than anybody else, but nobody is better than you.’”
Frances ‘Poppy’ Northcutt
She went to the University of Texas and studied maths because, she once said, it would help her get “a man’s job”. She joined TRW Systems, an aerospace contractor that worked with Nasa on the Apollo program and designed and built the descent engine for the lunar lander.
Northcutt was soon promoted, becoming the first female engineer to be part of mission control at Nasa. She worked alongside male colleagues to plan the trajectory for Apollo 8 to return to Earth. She was also involved in Apollo 11 and the epic struggle to bring Apollo 13 home after it got into trouble.
“I felt a lot of pressure because I was the only woman,” she told PBS. “I started looking around at these dudes that were working with me and I thought, ‘You know, I’m as smart as they are.’”
At one point she discovered one of Nasa’s internal channel cameras was focused entirely on her. She added: “I was sort of the trophy. I was blonde, I was young, I was thin, I wore the ladies’ fashion clothes.”
But Northcutt learned to live with the attention. “Well, of course I was being used,” she told PBS. “My feeling was, you can play this both ways. The mere fact that a lot of women found out for the first time that there was a woman in mission control was a very big deal.”
After Nasa, Northcutt became an outspoken feminist and, as the first “women’s advocate” in Houston, helped combat sex discrimination in the fire department. She went on to be a criminal defense lawyer and, now 74, is currently the president of the Texas chapter of the National Organization for Women.
She told the Houston Oral History Project: “I would have much preferred to have been the 10th or 20th [woman in mission control] because you do have to worry that people are going to say, ‘Oh well, she couldn’t cut it so other women can’t come through this. That was part of my consciousness raising and part of the reason I became a feminist.”
She endured obscene phone calls, lewd comments in the elevator and having to leave the building where she worked in search of a female bathroom.
But on 16 July 1969, JoAnn Morgan was the only woman in the launch firing room for the Apollo 11 liftoff.
A self-described “precocious little kid”, Morgan began working for Nasa in 1958 while still in college.
The Nasa website recounts: “Morgan heard later from colleagues that when she was hired to join the team, her immediate supervisor, Jim White, called everyone for a meeting – except her. As the room filled with men, White explained to the crew:
“‘This is a young lady who wants to be an engineer. You’re to treat her like an engineer. But she’s not your buddy. You call her Ms Hardin. You’re not to be familiar.’
“‘Well, can we ask her to make coffee?’ someone asked.
“‘No,’ White said. ‘You don’t ask an engineer to make coffee.’”
It was therefore little surprise that Morgan usually got the overnight shift ahead of launches, making way for a male colleague a few hours before the grand spectacle.
But when it came to the big one, she got her big break as instrumentation controller. Among the familiar rows of white short-sleeved shirts and dark ties, she is the solitary woman visible inside Nasa’s firing room for the launch of Apollo 11.
She told the Associated Press: “I was there. I wasn’t going anywhere. I had a real passion for it. Finally, 99% of them accepted that ‘JoAnn’s here and we’re stuck with her.’”
Once the launch was safely under way, Morgan and her husband, Larry, a school band director, went on holiday and watched the 20 July moon landing on a hotel TV. As they toasted the first lunar footsteps, he told her: “Honey, you’re going to be in the history books.”
Her Nasa career spanned 45 years and she became the first female senior executive at the Kennedy Space Center. Retired since 2003, she is now 78, divides her time between Florida and Montana and encourages young women to study engineering.
She told the Nasa website: “It was just meant to be for me to be in the launching business. I’ve got rocket fuel in my blood.”
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