Professionalism/Poppy Northcutt, Apollo, and Women in Tech


Importance of Equality in the WorkplaceEdit

Equality in the workplace, specifically gender equality in technology related fields such as aerospace engineering has ethical impact.

Women should not be belittled on the basis of sex, but this has happened repeatedly throughout history. Women have not been recognized or appreciated for their significant contributions to the field of aerospace engineering. This phenomenon is illustrated by equality concerns present during the Apollo 8 Mission.

Poppy Northcutt was the only woman in the control room on this mission. The mission would not have been possible without her calculations, but Northcutt felt discriminated against. When asked about her time during Apollo, she said: “I was certainly aware of the issues that were emerging, working in that environment I could see the discrimination against women.”

Taking progressive stances toward equality regularly pays off across the board in success, respect, financials, recruitment, lasting impact and legacy, and community support.

Gender Inequalities in Space ProgramsEdit

Women have been an integral part of NASA operations since 1922, filling important roles such as mathematician, computer, astronaut, engineer, and supervisors, without ample recognition.

Before electronic computers, all mathematical equations and computations would be done by hand by people, often known as human computers. Many male employees at NACA left to fight overseas in World War II, so more and more women were needed to fill their roles (NASA, 2019[1]).

These women were significantly underpaid and unappreciated compared to their male counterparts. Unlike their male counterparts, who were paid salaries and overtime, “computresses” were hourly workers, capped at nine hours a day, or 54 hours a week. However, if women wanted any chance of getting promoted, they needed to work the same hours as the men, resulting in many hours of unpaid work (Al-Heeti, 2019[2]).

The gender inequality present in technology-related fields has led women to leave science and engineering jobs at rates higher than their male counterparts.

In the aerospace industry, only 24 percent of employees are women, and there has been little change in years, according to a study done by Aviation Week.  Women make up only about a third of NASA’s workforce. And, they comprise just 28 percent of senior executive leadership positions and make up only 16 percent of senior scientific employees (Davenport, 2019[3]).

Brief History of NASAEdit

NASA began in 1941 as NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics). NACA was a small government organization intent on researching the limitations and potentials surrounding flight as well as its scientific principles.

During the cold war era, NACA began research into missiles. This inspired the concept of manned rocket vehicles, which led to an interest in spacecraft.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1.

On October 1, 1958, NASA was formed as an expansion of NACA with the intention of defeating the Soviets in the space race.

Earthrise: Apollo 8, December 24th

Signed by President Dwight Eisenhower on July 29, 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 "provided for research into the problems of flight within and outside the earth's atmosphere" and established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Apollo MissionsEdit

Apollo 8 was a significant mission in history. It was the first crewed mission to leave Earth’s orbit, successfully orbit the Moon, and return the crew to Earth. This mission served as preparation for Apollo 11, the mission in which a man walked on the moon for the first time.

Before the Apollo program, only men had been idolized and credited as the face of NASA’s mission control room. But when Apollo began, amid this sea of men, there was one woman: Poppy Northcutt.

Frances (Poppy) NorthcuttEdit

Brief BiographyEdit

Frances "Poppy" Northcutt in 2019

Frances (Poppy) Northcutt was a "computress" and mathematician at TRW Systems (later to become Northrop Grumman) in 1965. At TRW, Northcutt's skill caused her to stand out. She was assigned to the orbital calculations team for the company’s major contract holder, NASA. Being recognized for her excellence with this work, she was then hired by NASA, working in the Mission Control's Mission Planning and Analysis room on orbital maneuver calculations (Planetary, 2019[4]). Northcutt joined the Apollo Program in 1965 and worked in the space program for 5 years. During that time she contributed to the success of Apollo missions 8, 10, 11, 12 and 13. Northcutt was the first female engineer at NASA’s mission control (Ely, 2008[5]).

She faced the same sexual discrimination as other women working in the field, but chose to work long hours to strive to have the same responsibility as men. Despite her efforts, her pay was capped at 54 hours a week. When promoted to engineer, she met further pay discrimination. Northcutt said, “The pay raise was so high, they didn’t have the mechanism to approve that, and I was still being underpaid". In an attempt to balanced her pay with her male counterparts, she was scheduled for the maximum frequency of raises possible (Karlin, 2019[6]). This experience helped inspired her later work for gender equality. On this, she says, “When income is based on your past pay, and your past pay was discriminatory, you never solve the complete discrimination problem. So even if I got caught up, I would still never get caught up"(Ely, 2008[5]).

Northcutt's Work on the Apollo MissionsEdit

Northcutt's first position at NASA was plotting critical return-to-Earth trajectories for Apollo 8. This trajectory, called the free return trajectory, used the moon’s gravity to slingshot Apollo 8 back to earth while conserving fuel. Part of her job was initial testing of equipment and hardware that would be used for later lunar missions. Apollo 8 was also the first test of Northcutt and her team’s calculations (PBS, 2019[7]).

In Apollo 13, an oversight in pre-launch preparations damaged one of the three oxygen tanks. This lead to its violent rupture once in orbit on the way to the moon. The explosion damaged the fuel cells as well as a second oxygen tank leaving the service module crippled. This was particularly dangerous because, unlike the previous Apollo missions, Apollo 13 was not put on a free return trajectory. Northcutt’s team troubleshot the strategy to course correct Apollo 13, getting it back into the free return trajectory. Northcutt was critical in the mission's proclaimed "successful failure". For their success, Northcutt and her team were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Team Award (Karlin, 2019[6]).

Northcutt's Experience with SexismEdit

Northcutt's strong advocacy for women’s rights originated with her personal experience with sexism. Being the sole women at work posed many challenges. In one instance, Northcutt heard other flight engineers discuss enjoying viewing one channel in particular. Upon looking pulling it up, she found it was a video feed directly on her while she was flight testing (Powell, 2019[8]).

Her experience in the media was far worse. She had to endure cringe-worthy interview comments, once being asked “How much attention do the men in Mission Control pay to a pretty girl in miniskirts”. She was regularly interviewed and put on TV as a rare exception rather than an engineer who had earned her position. Northcutt contended the media attention was worth the discriminating comments as she was able to reach a new generation of young girls, letting them know it was possible for women to reach her level of success. Young women empowered by Northcutt's television appearances sent her letters. These letters inspired Northcutt to continue her efforts (Karlin, 2019[6]).

Beginning with her original workplace, TWR, Northcutt improved the company’s affirmative action and pregnancy leave policies. She also took on a leadership role in the National Organization for Women, leading women’s strikes while still employed at NASA, putting her job and career at risk. In 1972 she helped pass the Texas Equal Rights Amendment which decreed equality under the law regardless of gender, skin color, race, national origin or religious identity. She then became the first Women’s Advocate for the city of Houston in 1975 (Ely, 2008[5]).

In 1984 Northcutt earned her law degree from the University of Houston Law Center. She then served the first felony prosecutor in the domestic violence unit of the Texas Appellate Court, followed by a career as a defense attorney. Today Northcutt continues to advocate for women by providing legal services for pregnant teen. She also actively educates young voters and women from immigrant communities about the importance of their political participation (Ely, 2008[5]).

Other Women in NASAEdit

Women from hidden figuresEdit

Media can have a substantial impact on the knowledge and recognition of people throughout history. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan were three incredible women who worked at NASA but were not recognized for their work until years later. These women were the stars of the Oscar-nominated movie and book Hidden Figures in 2017.

Katherine Johnson had a pivotal role at NASA in the calculations used for the country’s space missions, yet remained unrecognized for decades. She did the trajectory analysis for the Mercury missions, and John Glenn insisted she did the same job for his orbital mission in 1962 (Martin, 2017[9]). Finally, in 2015, at age 97, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Mary Jackson was a “human computer” at the all-black West Computing Section at NASA. In addition to extracting the relevant data from experiments and flight tests, she spent much of her time helping other women advance in their career by advising them on potential educational pursuits (Howell, 2017[10]). Dorothy Vaughan began working at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943 and became and expert programmer in FORTRAN, the popular computer language at the time. In 1949, she was promoted to be the first black NACA supervisor (Shetterly, 2016[11]).

Status of Women in NASAEdit

In recent years, NASA has made a visible effort to praise the women that have helped and continue to help them. On their website, there is a page dedicated solely to women at NASA, where they state: “Women in STEM have, and continue to, play a critical role in how we explore the universe and what it has to offer.” (Ramji, 2019[12])

The page recognizes women who have had significant impacts on NASA’s progress. For example, Christa McAuliffe was the first teacher selected to go to space as part of the Teacher in Space project in 1986. Christina Koch and Jessica Meir were the first team of all-female space-walkers in October 2019. More recently, NASA has announced the new Artemis mission which plans to land the first woman on the Moon by 2024.

Impact on Women in TechEdit

This graph shows the fraction of U.S. bachelor's degrees awarded to women in STEM fields from 1966 to 2017. The data, provided by the American Physical Society, shows a plateau of growth in female STEM bachelor degrees in recent years.

The number of women at NASA and in science is growing, yet men continue to outnumber women, especially at the upper levels of these professions. According to the Society of Women Engineers, women have increased their numbers in many professions previously dominated by men, including law, business, and medicine; however, the number of women in engineering in the U.S. has not increased since the early 2000s. This graph, using data supplied from the American Physical Society, shows this trend as there has been a plateau of growth in female STEM bachelor degrees in recent years (APS, 2017[13]).

According to the US census bureau, in all engineering and computer occupations, the median earnings of females are less than those of males. The size of the gap varies by discipline, with women receiving anywhere from 86% to 95% of the median earnings of their male colleagues (SWE, 2019[14]).

Despite issues with earnings gaps and STEM degrees, women in tech are coming together more than ever before. Many professional groups such as Women@NASA, Women in Computer Science (or WICS), and Society of Women Engineers (SWE) have formed as a result. Because of women like Poppy Northcutt, who faced discrimination in the workplace but continued to work, women in tech are now gaining more support and recognition.


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  3. Davenport, C (26 November 2019). "At NASA, 2019 was the year of the woman, yet women still are a big minority at the space agency". 
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  5. a b c d Ely, Jane (3 April 2008). "Frances Northcutt - Houston Public Library Digital Archives". Houston Public Library. 
  6. a b c Karlin, Susan (2019-07-05). "How Poppy Northcutt cracked NASA’s boys’ club and became a feminist icon" (in en-US). 
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