How Space Exploration Provided A New Career Path For Women

Though woman played many roles in the Apollo program, people were generally unaware that the Manned Spacecraft Center team included female engineers and mathematicians.

By Alexandra HartJuly 19, 2019 10:55 am, ,

Parish Hirasaki was not planning on being a scientist. At least, not when she first got to Duke University.

“I was sent off to college to find a husband,” Hirasaki says. “And to get a teaching degree so if god forbid anything ever happened to that husband I could work when my children were in school. So that is the era I came from. “

The year was 1963. And as Hirasaki tells it, that’s what most women did… if they had the opportunity to go to college at all. But once she reached college, Hirasaki quickly realized teaching wasn’t in the cards. She struggled with the liberal arts courses. But she had always been good at math. So she changed her major.

But somewhere along the line I got interested in working in the space program,” Hirasaki says. “And thought, ‘Gee, maybe I can be an astronaut one day.’ And I think if most people back then who went to work in the space program fess up, that’s what they were thinking, too.”

Hirasaki did not become an astronaut.

Instead, she worked as a heat shield specialist for the Apollo 11 mission. Her job was to make sure that the lunar command module could withstand re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

She wasn’t alone. Hirasaki was one of several hundred women working for NASA behind the scenes in Houston. You might not know if you scanned the black-and-white news photos of the time, which often featured scores of white men with pocket protectors seated inside NASA’s famous Mission Control. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t there, something that former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson noticed.

“I’m very proud of the role women are playing in space,” Johnson noted in a diary entry reflecting on the Apollo program. “About 20% of the payroll at this spaceflight center consist of women. Ranging all the way from clerks and typists to aerospace engineer.”

One of those engineers actually worked her way to Houston’s Mission Control Center. Meet Poppy Northcutt.

“I did grow up in Texas. I went to high school in Dayton. Texas in Liberty County, and then I went to the University of Texas. I studied mathematics and when I got out of school i ended up working at TRW Systems which was a contractor for NASA.”

Northcutt landed in Houston in 1965 with the curious job title of “computress” – basically a gendered technical aide position. She was quickly promoted to work on Apollo 8 as a “return-to-Earth” specialist. She would become the first woman to work in Mission Control in a technical role. But like all women living in that era, her technical chops didn’t insulate her from rampant sexism.

“For many women, it was like for gravity is for you and I,” Northcutt says. “You don’t notice gravity until you go into a gravity free environment, or a heavy gravity environment.”

But that sexism didn’t necessarily always come from Northcutt’s male colleagues, she says. Once they saw that Northcutt was qualified and serious about her job, most of them came to respect her.

The media at the time was a different story. Northcutt says her age and looks received a lot of attention, and even sexual harassment from the press.

I was doing an interview outside sitting somewhere,” she says. “And there was a photographer there, but I was concentrating on the person I was talking to. Then I glanced out of the corner of my eye and was like, “what?’ and his photographer is laying on the ground shooting up my skirt. So it was definitely a very sexist environment”

JoAnn Morgan working in the NASA firing room

Wikimedia Commons

JoAnn Morgan working in the NASA firing room

JoAnn Morgan has a similar story. Morgan started her aerospace career straight out of high school, working as a civilian engineering aide for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency on Florida’s Cape Canaveral. After getting her bachelor’s degree in mathematics, she was hired by NASA to work at Kennedy Space Center. As the only female engineer and instrumentation controller there at that time, Morgan said the media often took an inappropriate interest in her as well.

“Oh yeah I received obscene phone calls, and people would try to get the cameramen to zoom in on my face or fanny or whatever they wanted to look at,” Morgan says.

She also initially faced pushback about being in the firing room during the missions.

“The test supervisors resisted me being there,” Morgan says. “I mean one kinda came over and whacked me on the back and said, ‘We don’t have women here.’”

But Morgan, was determined to stay.

“When there were questions or funny glances or anything like that – it’s like a mosquito. It buzzes around you kind of flick it away, and if it lands on you, you swat it and you’re done with it.”

Swatting away the naysayers worked out for Morgan, who was in the firing room for her first launch: Apollo 11.

“Just getting to sit at my console and feel liftoff…because the shockwave hits the building and it’s so powerful,” Morgan remembers. “I mean you could hear the noise and I could feel the vibration in my elbow on my chair. I could feel my bone vibrate. So that was exciting.”

As heady as it was to be the first women to work NASA, the financial payoff was less rewarding. In Texas, where Mission Control was based, wage-hour laws mandated that women could only work for a maximum of 9 hours per day, and 54 total hours per week.

Those same rules didn’t apply to men. So that means that many women were effectively working hours they weren’t getting paid for.

“And in fact I didn’t follow the rules,” Northcutt says. “My boss would come by and say, ‘Poppy, you don’t have to stay. You know we can’t pay you.’ – and it wasn’t the employer, it was the law. They couldn’t pay me more than nine hours a day. But I felt like if you were going to be part of the team, if you were going to be viewed as part of the team, you had to work like the rest of the team did.”

Nowhere was that pay discrimination – or discrimination in general – more apparent than among women of color.

Miriam Mann was one of the first African American women recruited to work at NASA’s predecessor: the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics – aka NACA. Although Mann didn’t work on the Apollo program directly, she and other African American women were among the first human “computers” for the space program following World War II. They were the so-called “hidden figures” whose math skills were highly sought after.

Duchess Harris

Miriam Mann

“There were 11 women in that entering class and that was in 1943” Mann’s granddaughter Duchess Harris says. “It was also significant because Franklin Delano Roosevelt desegregated federal jobs the year before. So it was the first opportunity for African-Americans to work for the federal government.”

Harris said her grandmother was a professor’s wife when she was recruited to work at NACA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

But while the federal workforce was technically integrated, the federal workplace Mann stepped into at Langley, was not. At the time, Langley forced African Americans to sit at segregated lunch tables, with signs designating where blacks were allowed to eat. Harris recalls her grandmother’s stories of how she would quietly remove the signs, in protest.

“My grandmother used to take the signs and put them in her purse and take them home as an act of defiance,” Harris says.

Working as a computer was one of the most prestigious and well-paid jobs a black woman could hold at a time. And even though Mann was married to a college professor – which gave her a level of privilege most African Americans didn’t have at the time – she still chose to work.

“A lot of black women were cleaning white women’s homes and weren’t able to spend time with their kids,” Harris says. “My grandmother was in a position where she could have stayed home with her kids, which was really unheard at the time because families needed two incomes.”

Mann retired in 1966 after 23 years at Langley. She died of cancer a year later, so she never got to see how her efforts helped put two Americans on the moon.

But for those women that did get to see Astronaut Neil Armstrong take that first step on the moon, the Apollo program was one of the most memorable moments of their careers

JoAnn Morgan would eventually rise through the ranks – from that first full-time engineer job at Kennedy Space Center to eventually becoming second in command for the center in 2002. Of all the firsts she experienced during her four decades at NASA, none of them, she says, matches the thrill of Apollo 11.

“Still from a historical standpoint, nothing has surpassed that experience of Apollo 11. It’s still the most historic part of my life and career “