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“My wish would be, all the photos in the future, there will always be women.”
— JoAnn Morgan, the only woman in NASA’s firing room for the liftoff of Apollo 11
The photograph is an American classic: members of the Kennedy Space Center team, packed into the control room watching the Apollo 11 mission lift off on July 16, 1969. The rocket would successfully carry humans to the surface of the moon for the first time.
Unless you scan the image closely, it’d be easy to miss her: JoAnn Morgan, an American aerospace engineer, who sat in the center with her hand to her chin, the only woman in the room.
This month, NASA celebrated Morgan along with some of the many other women who were instrumental in the eight-day Apollo 11 mission, which returned to Earth 50 years ago this week. Here’s a look at five of these women and their contributions.
JoAnn Morgan, launch controller
“I’ve got rocket fuel in my blood.”
JoAnn Morgan was NASA’s only female engineer at that time — and Apollo 11 was her debut as the first female launch controller.
Her road to that moment started when she spotted a summer job listing seeking two students to work as engineer’s aides with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Alabama. “Thank God it said ‘students’ and not ‘boys,’” Morgan, now 78, recalled, according to NASA, “otherwise I wouldn’t have applied.”
She would become NASA’s first female senior executive, and her career there spanned more than 45 years.
Margaret Hamilton, computer scientist
“I was attracted both by the sheer idea and the fact that it had never been done before.”
Margaret Hamilton, now 82, was the computer scientist who led NASA’s team of software engineers. (In fact, she’s credited with creating the term “software engineering.”)
As a director at the M.I.T. Instrumentation Laboratory, Hamilton helped develop the onboard flight software — the most sophisticated of its day — for NASA’s Apollo moon missions.
Her approach was so successful that no software bugs were ever known to have occurred during any crewed Apollo missions.
In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Mary Jackson, aeronautical engineer
“Sometimes they are not aware of the number of black scientists, and don’t even know of the career opportunities until it is too late.”
In 1958, Mary Jackson became NASA’s first African-American female engineer. She specialized in boundary layer effects on aerospace vehicles at supersonic speeds. According to NASA, it’s possible she was the only black female aeronautical engineer in the world at that time.
While Jackson tore down that barrier, she also encouraged others to follow in her footsteps. In the 1970s, she helped students at a Virginia community center, most of whom were black, to build their own wind tunnel to conduct experiments. “We have to do something like this to get them interested in science,” she told a local newspaper.
Jackson, who died in 2005, was portrayed by Janelle Monáe in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures,” based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly. It was nominated for an Oscar for best picture.
Katherine Johnson, aerospace technologist
“I counted everything: the steps, the dishes, the stars in the sky.”
Katherine Johnson, another of Shetterly’s “Hidden Figures” (she was played by Taraji P. Henson), was a gifted student who skipped several grades and attended a high school on the campus of a historically black college at age 13.
As an adult, she gained the reputation as a “human computer” for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which in 1958 became NASA. She calculated the trajectories, launch windows and emergency backup return paths for many flights, including Apollo 11.
Johnson, now 100, retired in 1986 after 33 years with NASA. “I loved going to work every single day,” she said.
In 2015, Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Judy Sullivan, biomedical engineer
“They’ll give you every reason in the world why they can’t have a woman over there. They’ll even tell you there are no female bathrooms.”
On the day of the Apollo 11 launch, Judy Sullivan, a former teacher and the first female engineer in NASA’s Spacecraft Operations, was the only woman who helped Neil Armstrong suit up for launch.
Sullivan, now 76, was the lead engineer for the biomedical system for the mission, working to ensure the astronauts were healthy enough for spaceflight.
In the 1970s, she appeared on the game show “To Tell the Truth.” The celebrity panel had to guess which female contestant was a biomedical engineer. Wearing a short ruffled skirt, she stumped everyone and won a $500 prize. “They were totally fooled,” Sullivan recalled.
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When Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, landed back on Earth after the Challenger mission in 1983, she told reporters, “I’m sure it was the most fun that I’ll ever have in my life.”
Ride, who died in 2012 at 61, had been chosen for the mission by Robert L. Crippen, the Challenger’s commander, in part because of her expertise with the robotic arm for the space shuttle.
When Ride and her crewmates blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., many in the crowd of 250,000 wore T-shirts that read “Ride, Sally Ride” — from the lyrics of the song “Mustang Sally.”
“The women’s movement,” Ride once said, “had already paved the way, I think, for my coming.”
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