Monday, August 03, 2009

Women of the Apollo Program

Last month was the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11's historic moon landing. Watching the footage of of the landing makes it look like the Apollo program was men-only. But it was more complicated than that.

As Echidne points out:

But the absence of women astronauts in the program has a much more concrete reason: They were excluded from it. Books have been written about that: Margaret A. Weitekamp's Right Stuff, Wrong Sex and Stephanie Nolen's Promised The Moon.

And there were women involved with the project itself as described by Robyn C. Friend in The Women of Apollo. You can hear one of the original engineers, Ann Dixon[sic], speak about her experiences here:

Ann Dickson says she was "convinced that someday she was going to be an astronaut." Unfortunately that didn't happen, in part because she didn't have 600 hours of flying time.*

Ann Dixon wasn't alone in the Apollo program as this 1969 AP article explains:
Frances "Poppy" Northcutt, for example, is a 25-year-old Dayton, Tex., native who is a member of the flight dynamics support staff in mission control at the Manned Spacecraft Center. The tall, blonde mathematician is one of the first women to serve in an operational support role in mission control.
"There's less discrimination against women here than in any of the professional areas," she said.
The article goes on to mention Larue Burbank, designer of the visual displays used for real-time monitoring of spacecraft, and Dorothy Lee, an engineer who worked on the re-entry heat shields.

In a 1999 interview, Lee recalled being recruited by NASA (pdf):
... math was very easy for me just happened to be the easiest subject, and that's the reason I majored in math. Then when we were recruited - I say "we." There were several girls - I was from Randlph-Macon [Woman’s College, Lynchburg, Virginia]—who went to work for NACA at Langley [Research Center, Hampton, Virginia], and again I was put in the best division there. It was called PARD, Pilotless Aircraft Research Division. We had the exciting opportunities to launch vehicles, to test different configurations, and how those configurations would [ultimately design] spacecraft by virtue of the shape of the nose. We went from cones to blunt bodies. You see today your different vehicles are all blunt bodies. So I was right there and enjoyed it. It was fun.
[. . .]
Of course, today, NASA recruits all over the country, but back in 1948, which is when I graduated from college, and there were not many gals, we were hired as "computers." Computers didn't exist, you understand. We had calculators. They gave us civil service exams, and I was fortunate enough to pass the exam at a couple of grades higher than I was hired in, so I got raises.

But the thing that I would like to tell has something to do with Dr. [Maxime A.] Faget. Working as a computer, [later] we were classified as mathematicians. One day my project was to solve a triple integral for an engineer, so it didn't require using my calculator. I could just do it at my desk. Max's secretary was going to get married, and so I was asked to be his secretary for two weeks while she was on her honeymoon. [. . .] I would answer the phone, distribute the mail, and work my triple integral. I did this for two weeks. [. . .]
This Friday, the end of my two weeks, Max said, "Dottie, how would you like to work for me all the time?"
I thought he was being funny, because I don't type, and I knew that this was the last day and Shirley was returning Monday. I said, "Sure," in a very flip way. He gets up, goes downstairs to talk to the division chief, and he returns and he says, "Dottie, you start working for me Monday."
Well, I looked at him like, "All right," you know. So they found me a desk, and I was put with some engineers who were beautiful and taught me how to be an engineer. I learned on the job.
But not surprisingly, it was tall blonde Poppy Northcutt** who got attention in the press, particularly when she turned out to be the only woman working at Mission Control during the Apollo 13 emergency. And also, not too surprisingly, the article uses almost as many column inches asking her social life as it does talking about her work with the Apollo computer systems .

So yes, there were indeed a number of women mathematicians and engineers who played important roles in the Apollo program, even if they weren't astronauts.

That doesn't mean that they earned everyone's respect, of course. See, for example, this 1987 article in Popular Mechanics about the Space Shuttle program in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster in which retired Mercury and Apollo 7 astronaut Wally Schirra complains about women scientists and non-test pilots in the program (who he seems to equate with engineers):
To get ready for a serious relaunch, NASA will have to go back to using qualified test pilots only for the foreseeable future. It is ludicrous at this early stage of space exploration to allow a virtual passenger on the Shuttle to become known as an "astronaut." Such people have little to offer at an engineering skull session. I was appalled to see young women scientists in mission control acting as liaison with the Shuttle mission commander. This is not a job for a "show-and-tell" celebrity.
After that gratuitous swipe at women scientists (gratuitous because it's unlikely that the men scientists in mission control were pilots either), Shirra goes on to explain how Sally Ride is totally NOT an "engineering test pilot", so she should totally stop talking about "flying" the Space Shuttle.

But now, 40 years after Apollo 11, there are indeed women test pilot-astronauts, such as Eileen Collins, Pamela Melroy, and Susan Still Kilrain, along with many scientist and engineer-mission specialists like Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, Karen Nyberg, Megan McArthur, Julie Payette, Stephanie Wilson, Joan Higginbotham, Kalpana Chawla (killed on Columbia), Sandra Magus, and many many others.

Now if only we'd finally return to the Moon, or head out to Mars . . .

Further reading and watching :

* In looking for info about women in aviation I learned that in 1979 (10 years after Apollo 11) only 110 of 45,000 airline pilots were women. Even women who might otherwise be qualified for the astronaut program would likely have a hard time getting enough hours in the air to qualify.

** And cutely they named "Crater Poppy" on the moon after her. Later Northcutt entered politics, helping organize the 1977 National Women's Conference in Houston (watch the excellent Sisters of '77 documentary to get a sense of the historical importance of that event), and got her law degree.

Photo: "In 1959, Langley [Research Center] employed six women who were classified by NASA as "scientists." During the Apollo era, women made up 3 to 5 percent of the professional work force agency-wide. The percentage of African American professionals was significantly smaller, from 1.5 to 3 percent. These percentages rose slowly for both groups as the decade proceeded". Source: NASA

Tags: , ,


Unknown said...

This is nice to see...watching the Apollo 13 movie, as great as it was, made me terribly sad and angry...because all the female characters were anxious wives. No engineers, no scientists, and certainly no astronauts. My response was "you guys got to go to the moon, and we got to make salad."
Thanks for this site.