The men of the Apollo mission control room are almost as legendary as the astronauts. Sitting in rows behind their computer controls in white shirts, the dark line of their ties, and their crisp right-side pockets, they’re an image that many can easily picture. But what about the women who supported missions?
While the stories of women who supported America’s space race may be harder to come by, they are beginning to be known a bit at a time. Among them is the story of Poppy Northcutt, the first woman in the control room and a talented engineer who made notable contributions to the Apollo missions.
Sitting alongside rows of male colleagues as an engineer for NASA’s mission planning and analysis support team, Northcutt’s role in the missions was significant. Initially, she was tasked with calculating the return to earth trajectories for Apollo 8, the first mission to sustain an orbit around the moon. NASA had heard that the Russians were looking to reach this milestone as quickly as possible and the agency felt they needed to beat them to it if they were going to maintain credibility. Northcutt’s role was to join the rest of her team in providing information that was crucial to the mission’s objective and help the crew to safely return home.
What did work look like for this team? During missions, team members would stay on-site and were deployed in pairs, placed in mission control for 12-hour shifts. As part of her shift, she monitored the progress of the spacecraft as it entered the moon’s orbit and experienced lower gravity. If required, she provided any calculations that the astronauts would need entering and leaving orbit or if they had to abort and move away from the moon.
Lasting contributions from Apollo 8
The calculations made by Northcutt and her team lasted beyond the duration of the Apollo 8. They were used, for the most part, in subsequent missions with a similar need to orbit Earth. Northcutt recalled that they “didn’t really make changes after (Apollo) 8 unless something came up.”. After Apollo 8, Northcutt was part of mission control staff for Apollo 10, 11, 12 and 13.
Mission control memories
Northcutt recalled many noteworthy times during missions. Standout moments were the times when crews were on the other side of the moon, without communications functions, turning on their engines for the return trip. She described how the entire control room was filled with tension. Moments felt like hours because the unimaginable was possible and they were nearly helpless to do anything if there was a problem. She also describes the relief they felt as the astronauts reported in that all was well.
In addition, Northcutt freely talks about Apollo’s most celebrated mission, Apollo 11 where astronauts first landed on the moon. She recalls how this mission was most notable for one element — the lack of drama and problems. She was stunned by how normal everything seemed and how smoothly the mission was running as the astronauts returned home.
Vivid memories of Apollo 13
Northcutt had strong and lasting memories of the Apollo 13 mission, which famously endured an explosion that crippled the spacecraft’s main engine. She called the mission “particularly tense” as those in mission control struggled to devise strategies to bring the astronauts safely back home. Ultimately the crew returned safely by using the attached lunar lander as a lifeboat and relying, in part, on trajectory calculations that Northcutt’s team helped develop.
Memories of working as a woman in mission control
In addition to her memories of the most intense moments of some of her missions, Northcutt has talked about what it was like to work as a woman in a field of expertise that was dominated by men. Most dramatic are her experiences with the media that was quick to highlight her gender ahead of her contributions. One New Jersey newspaper gave her the title of “NASA’s Texas Rose” and an ABC broadcaster who was interviewing her focused on her looks, quickly commenting that work stopped when she entered the room because she was a pretty girl wearing a miniskirt.
Northcutt recalled that it seemed as if an entire society was poised to hold her back. In addition to a media focus on her looks, she held the title of “computress”, a term that was different from her male colleagues. She also found it frustrating that her gender made her subject to laws restricting the number of hours she could work. Her male counterparts had the advantage of being able to focus on their mission for longer, while she simply had to do more in less time or in her own free time.
Northcutt’s departure from NASA
Northcutt enjoyed her time at NASA but, like most things, it eventually came to an end. After Apollo 13 general mission work was suspended. She was placed on an advanced missions team whose work included evaluating the possibility of a crewed mission to Mars. She was eventually reassigned temporarily to the Houston Mayor’s office as women’s advocate. Despite other intentions, she never made it back to NASA. She did get her law degree and maintained active in supporting the advancement of women’s rights.
Her experiences in NASA and afterward have given her a sense of purpose to help other women to be able to do fulfill their ambitions. She advises women to stay visible. She believes their visibility can, ultimately, help all women make their own contributions.