Frances “Poppy” Northcutt
As the first woman to work in an operational support role in NASA’s Mission Control Room, Frances “Poppy” Northcutt was aware that her presence was setting a precedent and that if she didn’t do a good job another woman might never be given a chance.
Hired by TRW Systems, an aerospace contractor, her first job was as a “computress” – a technical aide that worked with data analysis. Promoted to being a member of technical staff, the general term for engineers, she recalls that there was a point that she realized she was as smart as any guy in the room. The team she was working on was responsible for designing the return trajectory for the Apollo 8 on their mission to the moon and Northcutt began asking questions about every aspect of the program and as her questions improved she began finding flaws in the designs.
Northcutt studied every line of the computer code for the flight and though everyone felt their plan would be a success there was always a chance for failure. As the Apollo capsule was being put into orbit, mission control was tense. If something didn’t work just right, Northcutt’s team had to be prepared to design a completely new trajectory on the spot. The sequence for going into orbit was a success as was the return trajectory with the Apollo 8 returning safely to Earth. Continuing to work at NASA she worked on the historical Apollo 13 mission and was part of the group of engineers that developed the computer program that helped bring the flight home. As part of the missions operation team Northcutt was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom Team Award.
In the early 1970s Northcutt became involved with the National Organization for Women and felt that since she was secure in her job and could speak out without fear of reprisal she was going to speak for those who were not in that position. Since then Northcutt has been an advocate for equality across the board and served as the president of the Houston Texas chapter of NOW.
Written by Angela Goad