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Poppy Northcutt: Getting Apollo to the Moon and Back

LBJ Library on Flickr

Poppy Northcutt On May 1, 2019, Friends of the LBJ Library viewed a sneak preview of ‘Chasing the Moon’, a new six-hour PBS documentary series from AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. The film documents the space race from its earliest beginnings to the monumental achievement of the first lunar landing in 1969 and beyond. After the screening, a discussion followed with filmmaker Robert Stone, Poppy Northcutt, who at 25 gained worldwide attention as the first woman to serve in the all-male bastion of NASA’s Mission Control, and Roger Launius, former chief historian of NASA. The moderator was Mark K. Updegrove, President and CEO of the LBJ Foundation. The film will premiere on PBS July 8-10, 2019, leading up to the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. 05/01/2019 LBJ Library photo by Jay Godwin

In the late 1960s, women were not well-represented or recognized in the field of science. So, imagine being Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, the only woman to work at NASA’s Mission Control for all of its iconic lunar Apollo missions.

Apollo 8 was the first crewed mission to successfully orbit the moon and return safely. Apollo 11 landed on the moon, as did Apollo 12. However, Apollo 13 became infamous when an oxygen tank exploded and the astronauts could not complete their mission.

Can We Come Back Now?

While NASA figured out how to launch astronauts and get them to the moon, getting back to Earth was less clear. Northcutt worked out the math needed to help create programs for the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) in the command module that safely brought these Apollo missions back to Earth.

Northcutt began her NASA career as a computress for TRW, a company NASA hired to do computing for the Apollo missions. She was so competent at her work that she was promoted to be an engineer. However, TRW had to keep giving her bonuses every month to make up the difference between her computress salary and what male engineers were paid.

Helping Others Soar

Being the only woman in Mission Control and doing her job successfully (as well as gaining fame for being a woman in a man’s field), led Northcutt to become an activist. She got involved in women’s issues in Houston, Texas, and studied law while working at TRW. Then she left TRW and NASA to become a successful lawyer and worked for the National Organization for Women (NOW) for many years.

While being famous got Northcutt lots of media attention, fan mail, and marriage proposals, what really mattered to her was being a role model for other women and showing them they could do the same work as men; that the quality of one’s work was independent of a person’s gender, culture, or other factors. She also wanted to make a difference in her community.

Learn More

Poppy Northcutt: Return to Earth Specialist


Women of Apollo


Apollo 11 and the Woman Who Helped Get it Home


Frances “Poppy” Northcutt Cracks NASA’s Boys Club – 1968


Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC)


How the Apollo 11 Moon Landing Worked


Frances Northcutt