For half a century, pop culture has immortalized a group of quick-thinking, pocket-protected men as the face of NASA’s mission control room during the Apollo program. But amid this sea of men, there was one woman. Her name was Frances “Poppy” Northcutt.
Born in Louisiana in 1943, Poppy Northcutt grew up in Texas and studied mathematics at the University of Texas. At the age of 25, Northcutt was hired by NASA contractor, TRW Systems in 1965, becoming the first woman in an operational support role in NASA's Mission Control in Houston. There, she diligently worked as a gendered human computer or "computress" who calculated mission trajectory for the new Apollo program.
Northcutt soon got promoted to engineer, where her primary tasks were to minimize fuel and flight time requirements for Apollo 8, the first mission to leave Earth's orbit and circle the Moon. For the next several years, Northcutt and her team of engineers continued to develop computer programs to safely return astronauts from the Moon. Her team was nationally honored for finding a way to safely return Apollo 13 after a major equipment malfunction.
While working in a predominately male field, Poppy Northcutt dedicated her life to advocating the Women's Liberation movement.
Poppy Northcutt was an active member of the National Organization for Women (NOW), advocating for equal pay, rights, and access for women. By the mid-1980s, she transitioned out of aerospace engineering into criminal law, after graduating from the University of Houston Law Center. She was the first felony prosecutor in the domestic violence unit at the DA’s office where she worked.
To this day, Poppy Northcutt continues to break barriers and remains to be a true pioneer from beyond NASA's space program
It was important that people understand that women can do these jobs —going into science, going into technology, doing something that's not stereotypical. (Poppy Northcutt interviewed by Time Magazine)
In the news
"Meet the women behind NASA's historic Apollo 11 launch" CBS News
"Apollo 11: Poppy Northcutt explains what it's like to be part of space history" CNET
"How Poppy Northcutt Helped Put A Man On The Moon" Forbes
"The Women Who Helped Put Men on the Moon" LA Times
"Inside Apollo mission control, from the eyes of the first woman on the job" National Geographic
"Apollo 11 and the Woman Who Helped Get It Home" The Planetary Society - Planetary Radio
"Meet Poppy Northcutt, the Woman Who Helped Bring the Apollo 11 Astronauts Home Safely" Time Magazine