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Inside Apollo Mission Control, From the Eyes of the First Woman on the Job

Poppy Northcutt planned the vital flight trajectories that got astronauts home from their missions to the moon.

POPPY NORTHCUTT WAS serious, preoccupied by the lunar landing plans she checked over and over again for good measure. As an engineer for NASA’s mission planning and analysis support team, she was responsible for getting astronauts home from orbit and the moon during multiple Apollo missions.

Creating and perfecting that return trajectory was no easy feat—especially in the scramble to fulfill President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1961 mandate to land humans on the moon by the end of the decade, which accelerated NASA’s lunar ambitions. “The control center really had not had adequate time to train,” she recalls. “[They had] no time at all, to be honest.”

For Northcutt and her team, this meant working long hours under enormous pressure while figuring out how to return astronauts from a celestial body that hadn’t yet been adequately mapped. During Apollo 8, the first successful crewed mission to orbit the moon and return to Earth, her team created a return trajectory and refined it in real time using relatively primitive computing tools. Complicating matters, astronauts had to perform those return maneuvers when the spacecraft was behind the moon and out of communications range.

“JFK didn’t say the mission was to land on the moon. He said land on the moon and safely back here,” Northcutt says. “You didn’t have a successful mission until you were safely back.”

Media frenzy

Her pioneering work ultimately contributed to the success of numerous lunar expeditions, all while she was fielding media attention for her historic role as the first woman working as an engineer inside mission control.

“I felt the pressure to make sure that the word got out there that women do this work,” she says.

But if you’d opened a newspaper during her time with NASA, you might have come away with a different impression than the one she was hoping for.

“The Blonde at Mission Control,” blared one nationally syndicated headline. Another news piece from The Record of Hackensack, New Jersey, referred to her as “NASA’s Texas rose.” And when she sat down with an ABC broadcaster in 1968 to talk about her work on the Apollo missions, he asked the 25-year-old engineer about her looks instead.

“How much attention do men in mission control pay to a pretty girl wearing miniskirts?” host Jules Bergman asked her. “It’s been charged that when you walk into the mission operations control room, the mission grinds to a screeching halt.”

Now, when the former engineer turned women’s rights advocate turned criminal defense attorney looks back on her historic career, she sees an infuriating disconnect between her accomplishments and the era’s ability to acknowledge them.