How Poppy Northcutt Helped Put A Man On The Moon
John F. Kennedy was president for only 125 days when he stated a bold vision to commit our country to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth within a decade.
One who heeded his call was Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, a Texas oil patch high-school valedictorian and one-time beauty contestant. She joined more than 300,000 Americans to make Apollo 11 possible. As President Kennedy stated, “It will not be one going to the moon. It will be an entire nation.”
Math opened a path for Northcutt, reports WSJ reporter, Clare Ansberry. At NASA, she learned on the job. Northcutt would lug printouts full of computer logs home. There, she would reverse-engineer them and when she found data she didn’t understand, she queried the programmers the next day.
Her first employer, TRW, gave women the title “Computress” that signified they worked with data. It was an hourly job and the law kept her from making the same wage men made for the same work. Employers could only pay women 54 hours each week. But Northcutt still worked 60 to 70 hours weekly to win promotions and be part of the team.
She grew up in small Texas towns. In the beginning, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to be, only what she didn’t want to be: wife, nurse, teacher or secretary. She decided to study mathematics at University of Texas “because she was good at it and because it was a male-dominated field, which equaled more opportunity and pay.”
Reporter Ansberry described Northcutt as both “smart and beautiful” and who enjoyed being both. After 15 months at TRW, she was promoted to a salaried engineering job. The only woman on the team, “She would later discover a camera was, (at one time) focused on her and she was ogled in real time on the screens in the Manned Spacecraft Center, later named the Johnson Space Center.”
Northcutt was part of a team that designed the trajectory to bring Apollo 8, the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon, back to Earth. She sat wearing headphones, in Mission Control, on Christmas Eve 1968, the first and only female in the room. “Reporters wanted to interview the tall blond with the headset and described her as a ‘beautiful star that guided astronauts home.’”
While the notoriety raised her standing, it also made her uncomfortable. “How much attention do men in Mission Control pay to a pretty girl in a mini skirt?” ABC’s Jules Bergman, asked her. (In her defense, most young women (including me) wore minis back then!)
Alas, Northcutt, who never married, told the press: “My father remarked that the only thing that would make him prouder was to read the announcement of my engagement in the local paper.”
Today, on LinkedIn, Northcutt describes herself as “One time rocket scientist, sometime lawyer, full time women’s rights activist.”
–Go for your strengths. In Northcutt’s case it was mathematics.
–Do the hard work to earn your seat at the table. (Example: Northcutt worked overtime at home to reverse engineer the data and come back with questions.)
–Follow your dreams and don’t fall prey to stereotyping…even from your beloved father.
–Give back. Today, Northcutt is a full-time women’s rights activist.