There’s a scene in the upcoming American Experience documentary Chasing the Moon (airing over three nights on PBS, July 8-10), in which we see ABC broadcaster Jules Bergman interviewing a young woman named Frances “Poppy” Northcutt at the Manned Space Craft Center in Houston.
“How much attention do men in Mission Control pay to a pretty girl wearing miniskirts?” Bergman asks.
It’s the late 1960s. Tall, blond, and in her mid-twenties at the time, Northcutt doesn’t flinch. “Well, I think the first time a girl in a miniskirt walks into [Mission Control], they pay you quite a lot of attention, but after a while they become a little bit more accustomed to you and pay more attention to the consoles,” she says.
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Northcutt, a University of Texas mathematics graduate from Luling, had joined NASA contractor TRW Systems as a “computress” in 1965 and soon worked her way up to the position of return-to-Earth specialist. When Apollo 8, the first mission to orbit the moon, launched, she was in Mission Control—the first and, at the time, only woman to work there in a technical role. She would help guide every crew of astronauts back home through Apollo 13.
Northcutt’s accomplishments didn’t end with her pioneering role in the space program. In the 1970s, she became a leader in the women’s movement and served as the City of Houston’s first-ever official women’s advocate. In the 1980s, after attending law school, she became the first felony prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney’s Domestic Violence Unit before entering private practice as a criminal defense attorney.
In early June, we caught up with Northcutt, now 75, to discuss her work in space exploration, the disappointing end of the Apollo program, and the way NASA shaped her career as an activist and advocate.
Texas Monthly: Reading some interviews you’ve done before, it almost sounded like you got into the Mission Control job by accident.
Poppy Northcutt: It was pretty much an accident. I just wandered into the right place at the right time. I started looking for a job out of college. I ended up working for TRW, which was a contractor at NASA.
TM: What was your first job at TRW?
PN: My job title was computress, and if you’ve seen Hidden Figures, you’ve heard that terminology before. I thought it was bizarre, but that was the job title.
TM: What did you do as a computress?
PN: Well, basically as a computress you were a tech aide. You did a lot of number punching. Running a lot of data through the computer system, a lot of graphing—things like that. Just doing the grunt work for the engineers.
TM: Were you working on the Apollo program from the start?
PN: At first I did some stuff that was related to Gemini, then I started working on the return-to-Earth thing on Apollo, specifically. After I’d been there a total of about six months, the operations manager told me that I was performing above the level of a tech aide and that he was expecting to promote me to be a member of the technical staff at the next review at the end of the year. That would’ve been right around the end of ’66.
TM: You were the only woman working as a mission control technician at that time. Did you face a lot of sexism?
PN: In that time period, all women were swimming in a sea of sexism. So it wasn’t just me, and it wasn’t just NASA. In some ways, I had it pretty good, relatively speaking. I was earning more money than most women were earning at the time. Not that I was rich—and I was still experiencing pay discrimination, mind you.
TM: In Chasing the Moon, there’s a TV interview you did with Jules Bergman, the ABC broadcaster, where he asks you how much attention men in Mission Control paid to you for being young and wearing miniskirts. You kind of brush off the question, but were things actually bad?
PN: Most of the people that I worked with were fine, but the media attention on women at that time was very bad—that kind of treatment focusing on your appearance and so forth was pretty common.
TM: Yeah, I saw a newspaper headline about you from after the Apollo 13 mission that said “Girl Helps Bring Astronauts Home.”
TM: And you were 26, and you’d worked on five Apollo missions at that point, but it makes it sound like you’re an 11-year-old who happened to walk into Mission Control.
PN: Yeah, that was the world it was.
TM: Did all of the media attention you got follow you around? Did you feel famous? Would people stop you when you went out to a restaurant?
PN: Not ordinarily, although I did have a few things like that. I didn’t walk around feeling famous, although there was a lot of press. And a lot of the press was actually international, and I got lots of letters from all around the world. To me, the most amazing thing was that some of them were addressed to “Poppy, Space Program,” and I got them. And I have mail that doesn’t get to me now that’s properly addressed. So I found that a little bizarre. “Poppy, USA”—I would actually get the letter. I had letters from little girls and boys and all sorts of stuff.
TM: What did people write to you?
PN: Well, some of them just wrote things like, “I didn’t know that women could do this.” Some of the letters were from people in African countries wanting to marry me, and I figured that had to do with wanting to get a visa. So, just a variety of things.
TM: Did your friends think you had the coolest job in the world?
PN: Well, let me put it this way—I mean, if you were in a bar and somebody walked up and asked you what you did, I mean, I had a really cool answer.
TM: What would you actually say?
PN: “I’m a return-to-Earth specialist.”
TM: Did people actually know what that meant?
PN: Well, sort of.
TM: What did it mean?
PN: Our task was to optimize what you can optimize in terms of a trajectory. We were trying to get something that would minimize your fuel requirements and minimize your flight time requirements.
TM: By the time Apollo 8 launched, did you feel confident in what the team had come up with? Were you confident that they were going to return to Earth?
PN: Yes. Well, I was confident in the program that we had, okay? I was confident that we could calculate a good trajectory. Now, can you calculate it fast enough? That gets into a hairier question because you don’t know how much time you’re going to have if there’s a problem. The biggest concern was always when they were doing maneuvers on the back side of the moon, because you’re blind. They do a maneuver, you don’t know what’s happened until they come around and you acquire communication. If something went really bad, and they’re now on a really bad course, twenty minutes has gone by. Who knows where they are or where they’re heading?
TM: Do you remember what it was like on Apollo 8?
PN: I do. I really remember Apollo 8 because they were late coming out. I don’t remember how late—it was just seconds. But when you’re traveling as fast as they are, seconds are important. As it turned out, it was not a big deal, but those few seconds were very nerve-wracking. That whole mission was nerve-wracking.
TM: Even more than Apollo 13?
PN: In a way, yes; in a way, no. Apollo 13 was nerve-wracking because you didn’t know what had happened to the spacecraft. They knew that there’d been a big bang. They knew that they had an engine that was not working, but they didn’t really know what had happened. But, in terms of return-to-Earth, our program worked great. It did exactly what it was supposed to do. When you work over there, what you have to do is compartmentalize. You have to focus on what you do. So when I say Apollo 8 was very nerve-wracking, that was very nerve-wracking from the point of view of someone who was working on the return-to-Earth trajectory. Apollo 13 was very nerve-wracking because who knows what’s going on with the thing. They were clearly on a nice path home, but they still had a lot of environmental problems.
TM: And environmental problems weren’t what you were focused on?
PN: [There wasn’t] a thing I could do about environmental problems. Not a thing I knew about environmental problems.
TM: In the documentary, you say that you thought that the Apollo program was “the beginning of moving out to other planets.” When did you realize it wasn’t?
PN: There were some indicators of that as early as Apollo 11. What we were hearing, even during Apollo 11, was that there had been pink slips handed out at the Cape [Canaveral] to the launch crew, right after launch. So it became pretty clear pretty rapidly after 11 that cutbacks were coming.
TM: Before Apollo 11, did you feel like “in ten years we’ll be on Mars?”
PN: Not ten years, but I thought maybe in twenty years.
TM: After people started getting laid off, and you realized no Mars missions were happening soon, did you start thinking about life outside of the space programs?
PN: I transferred out. I went to L.A. I worked on anti-ballistic missile weapon systems out there, which I really didn’t like doing. Then I came back, and I went on the mayor’s staff and became women’s advocate for the city of Houston.
TM: That’s a big change. Did your experience at NASA push you to become more involved in the women’s movement?
PN: Well, it’s hard to separate things. My experience of being one of the few women that was in a technical role— of getting some limelight and being asked about the role of women—those things just illuminated for me what was going on. At the same time, the second wave of feminism was just very active, very emerging. So I just became increasingly aware of the degree of sexism that there was in our society.
TM: When you heard that women’s advocate job was being created, did you know that you wanted to do that?
PN: I thought it would be interesting. I thought it would be different. I thought it would be a challenge. And, at that time, the space program was winding down. They weren’t going to be doing any ambitious things like going to Mars—that was clear. So I thought it would be interesting to have a challenge.
TM: And was it?
PN: Yeah, it was very interesting, and it was a challenging environment, that’s for sure.
TM: You mean just being in city politics?
PN: City politics is definitely a challenging environment. All of that experience just indicated to me how important it was to improve some of our laws.
TM: Is that how you ended up becoming a lawyer?
PN: I used to go to lunch with a federal district judge when I was working for the mayor. That judge was a wonderful guy, Woodrow Seals, and he was quite a character. I’d go to lunch with Woody a couple of times a month and argue with him about what he was doing. If I didn’t like something he ruled, I’d talk to him about that. He kept telling me I needed to stop practicing law without a license. I finally said, “Well, I think you’re right, Woody. I think I’m going to law school.”
TM: You’ve done so many things after the space program that seem to have nothing to do with space. Have you continued to use the Apollo program as a reference point in your life? Or does it almost feel like it happened in a different life?
PN: To me the space program is something I worked on, and I worked on very hard. I’m very proud of what I did. I think that was a great accomplishment for America and, actually, a great human accomplishment. But it’s not something I dwell on. There’s lots of people that know me that are going to be amazed when they see some of these documentaries. They have no clue that I worked in the space program.
Read more of Texas Monthly’s coverage of 50 years in space via our July 2019 special issue.