This Amazing 25-Year-Old Woman Helped Bring Apollo Astronauts Back From The Moon

Dec. 24 is the 46th anniversary of Apollo 8’s lunar orbit — the first manned mission to travel to the moon and back.

Although NASA was full of men at the time, there was one woman in the mix: Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, who was an integral part of the engineering team on the Apollo missions.

Northcutt’s experience with working on the Apollo 8 mission is detailed in the PBS documentary, “MAKERS: Women in Space,” the third film in a series of six documentaries about women pioneers.

Northcutt was born in Manny, Louisiana in 1943 but grew up in Luling, Texas. She attended the University of Texas where she studied mathematics.

She chose mathematics because it was a degree with which she could get 'a man's job … there were advantages to doing things where you could get paid more and avoiding women's work,' she told Jane Ely in a 2008 interview for the Houston Oral History Project.

In three-and-a-half years, Northcutt graduated. Shortly afterward, she went to work for an aerospace contractor, TRW Systems, who collaborated with NASA on the Apollo Program. TRW designed and built the descent engine for the Apollo lunar lander, among other projects. Northcutt immediately began working on 'Apollo stuff' as she puts it.

At first it was a lot of grunt work, but they soon promoted Northcutt from 'computress' to a member of the technical staff, which she says was the general term for engineer.

Northcutt was stationed in the Mission Control's Mission Planning and Analysis room, just down the hall from the main Mission Control Center. She was the first woman engineer to work as part of NASA's Mission Control.

'I felt a lot of pressure because I was the only woman,' Northcutt said in the PBS documentary. But that didn't stop her. 'I started looking around at these dudes that were working with me and I thought, 'you know, I'm as smart as they are.''

Northcutt fearlessly worked with the team of male engineers who designed the return-to-Earth trajectory that the Apollo 8 crew took from the moon, back to Earth.

Northcutt meticulously studied the path that NASA had planned for the astronaut's path home. As she analysed the plan, she began asking questions 'including some that would show up that there's a mistake in here,' she recalls.

Apollo 8 mission profile.

Source: 'MAKERS: Women in Space.'

These calculations were vital for the Apollo 8 crew -- who would become the first humans to ever orbit the moon. Getting them home safely was crucial to the mission's success. A feat that meant their communication with NASA would cut out while they flew over its 'dark side.'

Northcutt's diligent attention to detail helped NASA develop the final route that the Apollo 8 crew would take home. Her work meant many nights studying hundreds of lines of computer code to plan the mission.

Though the mission trajectory was meticulously developed by Northcutt and the other engineers and mathematicians on her team, NASA's mission control waited with anticipation for the crew to make their way back in to view of Earth and regain contact.

If it took the astronauts too long for them to swing around the moon, it would mean they had less fuel than expected and Northcutt and the rest of Mission Operations would have to make on-the-spot changes to the plan to ensure the astronauts' safe return.

Northcutt recalls waiting for Apollo 8 to regain communication: 'Everyone in the room is not breathing... Nobody's heart is beating. We're just totally still, waiting.'

Communication with the capsule was restored after they orbited the moon and the mission was a great success. The Apollo 8 crew safely returned to Earth on Dec. 27, 1968, landing in the North Pacific Ocean.

Apollo 8 wasn't the only mission that Northcutt worked on. She continued with TRW and NASA for another several years, including throughout Apollo 13 -- a mission that would prove just how perilous lunar missions were for the astronauts.

Apollo 13 launched on April 11, 1970. Northcutt traveled to Florida to see it and had just returned to Texas when she got a call from ABC News journalist at the time, Jules Bergman.

Apollo 13 launch.

Source: Houston Oral History Project.

Mission Control had been trying to reach Northcutt but it was Bergman who finally got in touch. After learning about the exploded oxygen tank, she joined the engineers at the center. Northcutt and the other engineers who had developed the computer program Apollo 13 were using to get home were there 'as support because it was a pretty complex program,' she said.

For her participation in helping with Apollo 13's safe return home, Northcutt was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Team Award, along with the rest of the Mission Operations Team.

Astronaut John L. Swigert, at right, with the 'mailbox' rig improvised to adapt the Command Module's square carbon dioxide scrubber cartridges to fit the Lunar Module, which took a round cartridge.

Source: Houston Oral History Project.

A medal wasn't her only honour. She also has a crater on the moon named for her: 'Crater Poppy.' Apollo 17, the last mission to land men on the moon, landed nearby Crater Poppy.

Some of the Apollo 17 crew on the moon.

Source: Houston Oral History Project.

Being one of the only women working in engineering, Northcutt became increasingly involved in the Women's Liberation movement. In 1974, the Mayor of Houston, TX named her the first Women's Advocate for the City.

While she was still working 30 hours a week at TRW, Northcutt attended law school in the evenings, graduating summa cum laude from the University of Houston Law Center in 1984.

The O'Quinn Law Library at University of Houston.

Source: Houston Oral History Project.

Northcutt's role at NASA helped pave the way for women NASA engineers, and eventually astronauts. By the time Sally Ride became the first woman astronaut in 1983, Northcutt had been fighting for women's rights for over a decade and was a leading figure in the National Organisation for Women.

Sally Ride communicates with ground controllers from the flight deck during the six-day mission in Challenger, 1983.

Source: Houston Oral History Project.

'I would have much preferred to have been the tenth or twentieth (woman in Mission Control) because you do have to worry that people are going to say, 'Oh well, she couldn't cut it so other women can't come through this,' Northcutt said. 'That was part of my consciousness raising and part of the reason I became a feminist.' Today, Northcutt is President of the Houston Area Chapter of the National Organisation for Women (NOW) and of Texas State NOW.

Nortcutt wasn't the only woman in the early days of NASA.

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