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How the women of NASA made their mark on the space program

Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

HOUSTON -- The Civil Rights Act had just passed and the slide rule was giving way to computers when Frances "Poppy" Northcutt arrived at NASA's Houston campus in 1965, eager to join the space race. But her job title stunned her: "computress."

Northcutt, then 22 and fresh out of the University of Texas at Austin with a mathematics degree, soon learned that at NASA, men were engineers, women "computresses" or "human computers," with less status and less pay.

But Northcutt persevered, and three years later, during the Apollo 8 mission, she would become the first woman to work in Mission Control.

As the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing approaches, Northcutt and other women who helped America's space efforts are reflecting on their often unheralded roles -- and the indignities they endured. Many were lone pioneers, fighting behind the scenes to not only build their own careers, but to advance those of other women and minorities at NASA.

When Northcutt started at the agency, she knew nothing of fellow computresses at NASA's Langley, Va., research center -- African American female mathematicians made famous in the book and 2016 film "Hidden Figures." What Northcutt knew was that she wanted to be part of the team putting men on the moon.

"I wasn't thinking of it in terms of breaking rules," she said recently at her Houston office. "I was thinking you have to integrate into the team."

 

Poppy Northcutt

When Northcutt entered Mission Control in 1968 with her long blond hair and miniskirts, she knew she would stand out. Almost everyone working there was white, male and clean-cut, a sea of white shirts.

"It was a radical thing for the guys to wear a blue shirt," said Northcutt, 75, adding, "It was a pretty bleak landscape for women."

She took a seat at a console, donned headphones and was instantly overwhelmed by the din of overlapping conversations.

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