Meet Poppy Northcutt, One of the Pioneering Women of the Apollo Space Program
This Saturday is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 space program’s landing on the moon. In honor of the achievement, Citizen Truth will run a series of articles about little known aspects of the Apollo 11 space program all week.
While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are infamous names in history and key members of the Apollo space program, there were in fact thousands of ground support people including women who made the Apollo program a success. One of them was a young woman named Frances “Poppy” Northcutt from a small town in Texas named Luling.
Northcutt, whose involvement in the NASA program was profiled in a recent Forbes article, graduated from the University of Texas with a mathematics degree and soon began working for TRW Systems in 1965. TRW was a NASA contractor, and Northcutt’s job was as a “computress.”
She first worked on some Gemini-related projects, then as a tech aide for the Apollo return-to-earth team. After six months Northcutt was performing way above a tech aide level and was promoted to the technical staff in 1966. Return-to-earth specialists optimized the reentry trajectory of the spacecraft to minimize both flight time and fuel usage.
By the time Apollo 8 launched as the first mission to orbit the moon, Northcutt was the only woman to work in Mission Control in a technical role. From Apollo 8 to Apollo 13, she worked as a return-to-earth specialist, helping guide astronauts back home.
NASA Job by Accident
Northcutt is now 75 and reflected on her role at NASA as the 50th anniversary of the moon landing approaches on July 20. In an interview with Texas Monthly, Northcutt said ending up at NASA was not necessarily by design; she began looking for a job after college, found TRW and landed the computress job, a term which she thought was bizarre, but that nevertheless was the job title.
As a computress, she did a lot of number crunching and data graphing, “grunt work for the engineers,” as she described it. Northcutt said she was earning more money than most women, but certainly not as much as men. She described the general era, not just NASA, as a “sea of sexism.”
Northcutt said the men she worked with treated her just fine, but the media attention during Apollo “was very bad, focusing on my appearance” rather than on substance. In one particular headline about the doomed Apollo 13 mission, the newspaper read, “Girl Helps Bring Astronauts Home.” Although Northcutt was a veteran of five Apollo missions and 26 years old, the headline made it sound as if a young girl had serendipitously walked into Mission Control and saved the crew.
Many Apollo employees thought the program would continue to explore other planets, but when it was clear it wouldn’t, Northcutt went to Los Angeles to work on missile weapon systems, which she really did not like doing. During Apollo, Northcutt did become fairly famous and got many letters from young girls and women saying, “I didn’t know women could do this.”
An Advocate for Women
As Northcutt reflected on her role during Apollo, she said that being one of very few technical women at the time illuminated for her what was going on in the larger picture of women’s roles during the 1960s, and it challenged her to become an advocate for women.
After Los Angeles, Northcutt moved back to Houston and worked for the mayor, serving as the city’s first official women’s advocate. She later graduated from law school and became the city’s first felony prosecutor in the Domestic Violence Unit, and later entered private practice as a criminal defense attorney.
While proud of her Apollo work Northcutt said that it is one of several things she has done in her life. Many of her friends today are shocked to learn that she even worked in the space program, although Northcutt did say that during Apollo, if she went out to a bar and someone asked her what she did, being able to say “return-to-earth specialist” was a pretty cool answer.