Apollo 11 launch: The women who helped to put a man on the moon

Eleanor Steafel
Firing Room 1 at Nasa’s Launch Control Center, with JoAnn Morgan at her desk during the Apollo 11 launch, 16 July 1969 -

As the Apollo 11 countdown began, JoAnn  Morgan was the only female allowed into the Firing Room. Eleanor Steafel hears how she, and two other exceptional women, fought for their place at Nasa – and in history 

As dawn broke on the morning of 16 July 1969, Firing Room 1, in the heart of the Kennedy Space Center, was a hive of nervous energy. Shortly after 8.30am (EST), Apollo 11 would leave Launch Pad 39A on a Saturn V rocket bound for the moon. Filling the highways, beaches and car parks around the launch site were spectators who had camped out overnight and woken to a bright sunny day, full of promise.

Footage from that morning – some of it never seen before, as featured in the documentary Apollo 11, released last month – reveals a kind of glorious carnival atmosphere, with women in 1960s dresses and giant sunglasses, suntanned children playing on car rooftops and old friends sitting in deckchairs, sharing lemonade and sandwiches.

 Inside the Kennedy Space Center, however, it was a different story. For the engineers and scientists who had prepared for this day (some of them for years), the business of getting three astronauts to the moon and back safely was a deeply complex, nail-biting exercise.

Footage of those eight anxious days at Nasa’s Mission Control Center reveals a tightly controlled, flawless operation which seems just as extraordinary a feat 50 years on. Even shots of engineers calmly working away at their desks are captivating – a sea of frowning men wearing crisp white shirts and ties with neatly cropped, all-American haircuts and thick glasses.

But as the camera pans, you can’t help but do a double-take when, just for a moment, it rests on a conspicuous figure with glossy shoulder-length hair, a striped, zip-up dress and a slick of pink lip tint. One lone woman sits among the men, a pencil in her hand, a look of calm concentration on her face.

JoAnn Morgan was a 28-year-old engineer, and the first woman permitted inside the Firing Room – where all personnel were locked in 30 minutes before blast-off – during an Apollo launch.

Like all her colleagues, Morgan deserved her place in the room on that historic day, but unlike the rest of them, she had to fight for it. ‘Up until Apollo 11, I had worked on all the missions but I wasn’t allowed in the Firing Room at lift-off,’ she tells me, speaking from her home in Florida ahead of the moon landing’s anniversary. ‘Usually two-and-a-half or three hours before T-Zero, I would fly back to either the computer room or the tracking station or the antenna site. One time I actually got to be outside in the parking lot and watch a launch. ‘But Karl Sendler [Nasa’s director of information services] went to the director of the Space Center and fought for me to be in the Firing Room.

JoAnn Morgan was the first female engineer at Nasa. ‘I got rocket fuel in my blood!’ she says Credit: Universal Pictures

 ‘He thought that I could communicate real clearly. We had headsets on and I was listening to 21 channels, but when somebody started to work a problem I could keep my voice calm and communicate with people working a problem without getting them all stressed and upset. And he liked that, he felt that if we had a problem I would be the best person to be there.’

Of the 24,000 people who worked at the Kennedy Space Center during the Apollo missions – which spanned the 1960s and ’70s, captivating a world mired in the Cold War, grasping for something to believe in – just 500 were women. Many were mathematicians, like those depicted in the Oscar-nominated 2016 film Hidden Figures. In 1969, fewer than 20 of those women were engineers.

Margaret Hamilton, now 82, who developed the guidance and navigation system for the Apollo spacecraft, is credited with having coined the term ‘software engineer’. In one critical moment just before the moon landing, the software that Hamilton’s team had created averted disaster when, three minutes before the lunar lander reached the moon’s surface, the system became overloaded and threatened to abort the landing. She was widely praised for her pioneering work at a time when the field of computer science was almost exclusively occupied by men, and later wrote of the moment: ‘If the computer hadn’t recognised this problem and taken recovery action, I doubt if Apollo 11 would have been the successful moon landing it was.’ 

Hamilton has said she was so wrapped up in her work that she didn’t notice the gross gender imbalance until Mad Men came around and seemed a little too familiar. Although, when a woman on her team was told by the Massachusetts Credit Union that she couldn’t get a loan without her husband’s signature, while male applicants didn’t need spousal approval, Hamilton campaigned to have the policy changed. ‘It was the culture, but I won, and I was so happy,’ she recalled. ‘I didn’t do it because of male versus female; I was very conscious of what was fair and what wasn’t fair.’

Poppy Northcutt was a contractor brought in by Nasa to help design trajectories for Apollo 11’s return to Earth. ‘It was initially called the Abort programme because its purpose was to be able to rapidly come up with a way to get home from the moon in difficult circumstances,’ she tells me, as if coming back from the moon doesn’t already qualify as spectacularly difficult circumstances.

After graduating with a mathematics degree and master’s from the University of Texas, Northcutt, now 75, began her career as a ‘computress’ for a Nasa contractor in 1965, when the space programme was still forming. Her job was to run calculations based on the male engineers’ work. ‘The computresses were all women.’

In the days before machine computers became mainstream, carrying out complex calculations by hand was still routine. Northcutt would take a piece of work home each night and go through the code. She eventually earned her place in the technical team as an engineer.

‘I had never expected to end up in the control centre at Nasa, but with the acceleration of the schedule – which they did because they were afraid the Russians were going to beat us to the moon – they needed people in the control centre who were really familiar with what it was like to do manoeuvres in the vicinity of the moon.’ She gained her place ‘because there weren’t a lot of people who knew anything about coming back to the Earth from the moon’. And so, the powers that be at Nasa had to get used to the idea that there would be a handful of women in their midst on the most important week in their history.

JoAnn Morgan’s role tested her forensic knowledge of the infinite, intricate systems that kept Apollo 11 ticking over. She was tasked with keeping abreast of everything from the software to detect fires, to possible leaks and valve positions on the spacecraft, to monitoring the rescue aircraft carrier for any interference, like a foreign ship or submarine that might be trying to intercept the frequency they were using to send messages to the command module (a genuine threat during the space race).

Whole teams controlled each of these various technical systems – Morgan had to be across all of them. ‘I had a tree of communication,’ she explains. ‘My job was to tell the test conductor and the managers in the Firing Room how our systems were performing – is everything going perfectly? Nobody working any serious problems?’ 

In reality it was a ‘very easy shift of work’, she says cheerfully, recalling the ‘nice quiet launch countdown’. ‘We didn’t have problems. It was a smooth countdown. We had a lot of problems with Apollo 8 and a few with 9 and 10, but 11 was just a dream, it was really wonderful. It did feel flawless, in a way. ‘A bad day is a horrible day in the space business because it involves loss of life and setbacks.’ 

Margaret Hamilton standing next to the Apollo guidance software she and her team developed, 1969 Credit: Courtesy MIT Museum

Each person in the room was acutely conscious, she says, that the world was watching. ‘It was a very unifying moment.’ Northcutt agrees: ‘The main thing that was different about Apollo 11 was that this was, sort of, the culmination of the commitment of the vision that John F Kennedy had a number of years earlier about going to the moon.

 ‘Everyone was very aware that this was a matter of national prestige, that the entire world was watching. And, also, what we were doing had not just never been done before but also was quite spectacular, an incredible achievement.’

They were never more aware of the pressure than when there was a camera in the room.An attractive young woman in a sea of white shirts, Northcutt found herself perfect fodder for the news teams. ‘I had one of them come up to me at one time and I’d been there for 10 or 12 hours and he said, “Could you go and comb your hair and put your lipstick on?” I’m looking at this man who wants a glamorous shot of me. “This is not glamorous work, this is hard work,” I said. “No, I cannot leave my station,” and I just glared at him.’

Morgan, now 78, had started working at Nasa straight out of school, after spotting an advertisement for a student engineers’ aide, ‘next to the poster that had FBI most-wanted criminals in the post office’.

‘My first boss had a daughter and I think that was a factor in his behaviour. He said this young woman wants to become an engineer, she is going to be treated like an engineer, but she is a woman and she is going to be respected. He told them they couldn’t ask me to make coffee, they couldn’t ask me to run errands. I was an engineer trainee.’ 

Despite her early champion, Morgan endured the full spectrum of discrimination in her time at Nasa, from receiving obscene phone calls to her direct line in the Firing Room, to routinely being told to leave certain labs and control rooms because, ‘we don’t have women in here’.

Every time she would check with Mr Sendler who would tell her ‘plug in your headset and go to work’, and so she did just that, only complaining when she got home and could offload to her husband, Larry, a school band manager, who encouraged her to stick to her guns.

 ‘After the third time I got an obscene phone call in the Firing Room, I talked to my husband about it and he said, “You have to tell somebody, this is not a good thing.” 

 ‘One of the TV supervisors saw me one day when I received a phone call. I must have had a horrible look on my face as I hung up and slammed the phone into the receiver. He came and talked to me and said, “What’s wrong?” and I told him about it. And the calls stopped. Nobody ever told me what they did, but they stopped.

 ‘[In Larry] I was so lucky to have somebody who accepted me and that I had a passion for this, I wanted to be part of it, I got that rocket fuel in my blood.

‘We got married in 1965, so bless his heart he’d had to live with me through very intense and hard times, working 28 days straight and 12-hour shifts with no time off. We hardly saw each other because I left at three in the afternoon and got off at 3am.’

Poppy Northcutt, pictured at Nasa's Mission Control 1969, helped to design the trajectories for Apollo 11's return to Earth  Credit: GETTY IMAGES

It was with Larry by her side that she watched Neil Armstrong become the first man to walk on the moon. After the launch, her job was done and it would be four days before Apollo 11 reached the lunar surface, so she and Larry took a holiday up the Gulf coast in their boat.

‘We checked into a hotel, had a lovely dinner and the landing was going to be on TV late at night, so my husband bought a bottle of champagne.We enjoyed watching the landing and were so inspired by it and we just enjoyed drinking a glass of champagne.

‘I hadn’t thought so much about the history aspect, but my husband looked at me and he said, “Honey, you are going to be in the history books.” And then it hit me.’

But though Morgan’s role in the moon landings was over, for others the mission was only just beginning. ‘The whole Apollo programme was designed to get two Americans to the lunar surface and back again to Earth safely,’ the voice-over of that morning’s coverage said solemnly. ‘The enormity of this event is something only history will be able to judge.’ A few days in, Northcutt’s team was preparing to bring the astronauts home.

Like Morgan, Northcutt often found herself a lone woman in a room filled with men. Not that it bothered her particularly – she was focused on the task at hand. ‘I was the first woman in an operational support role at Mission Control so I was pretty aware of it. And all across the space programme, if you were looking at women in engineering kinds of roles, they were very rare.

‘Was it lonely? I suppose, but I was working so hard I didn’t really have time to feel lonely.’ That determination comes with the territory, Morgan and Northcutt tell me. ‘You have to dig in and stick to solving these problems until you find a solution. You have to have a lot of grit to be like that,’ says Northcutt.

Even, she says, when a cameraman is bothering you while you work. ‘I experienced pay discrimination, I experienced sexual stereotyping, I experienced gender-based discrimination. But during the time I was in the control centre itself, the most obvious discrimination really had to do with the treatment and the stereotyping by male journalists. Everything was about what I looked like, they would only shoot pictures of my legs.

‘I didn’t even have the vocabulary to describe what that was like. I didn’t know the word “sexism”. So you just coped with it. I wouldn’t have known who to report it to, and what would that do? Who would I have told that some journalist was a pain in the butt?’

Northcutt went on to set up a committee within the space programme to help the women of Nasa get better treatment, and secure greater access to benefits and insurance. But it was once her career had moved on that she channelled her experiences into activism, going to law school and advocating for the city of Houston on women’s rights.

After a career spent bringing astronauts back from space, you might imagine any third act would seem unexciting – not so for Northcutt. ‘I worked very hard on the passage of a state constitutional amendment in Texas which would require non-discrimination between males and females. I consider the passage of that to be quite important. To bring constitutional equality to that many women.’

Morgan, meanwhile, finished up as a Nasa executive, and ‘one of the top three people’ running the Space Center before she retired. After all those years spent sending astronauts into space, she only wishes she could have experienced it herself.

‘I would have volunteered to go to Mars if Nasa had a geriatric programme. Once my husband passed away – I wouldn’t have gone off and left him. I said [when I was] between 65 and 75, I’m a healthy person, I don’t have any health risks, I still have intellect and curiosity, and I’d be willing to go, even if I couldn’t come back, because of the new knowledge, the experience and the discovery.’

Half a century has passed since both women stood in that Firing Room, their work bookending what remains one of the most unifying moments in human history. In that time, women have gone into space and numbers of female engineers at Nasa have risen. But the balance, they say, is still not what it should be.

‘In terms of women in operational roles at Nasa, there have been vast improvements,’ says Northcutt. ‘We’ve had women flight directors, but if you look at the field as a whole, I think women are now running around eight per cent. That’s up from what amounted to zero back in 1969 or ’70. But it’s still a huge under-representation.’ ‘In the movie,’ recalls Morgan, ‘there’s just this lone woman in the room – I hope pictures like that go away and that we always see women in these rooms. Women need to be out there making better decisions for the world.’

Fifty years ago, they paved the way for that eight per cent now working at Nasa. As far as Northcutt and Morgan are concerned, the world could do with another unifying moment like Apollo 11. ‘That was one of the most important things about the Apollo missions,’ says Northcutt. ‘It wasn’t just a celebration that took place for the United States. People all over the world felt a pride in human achievement.

‘That was something human beings had had in the back of their minds for centuries, sitting outside and looking up and wondering what is that thing in the sky. To finally achieve it was an incredible thing.’ 

Apollo 11 is in cinemas now