People are all a-Buzz about the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that put a man on the moon. And, while no woman has set foot on the moon yet, women have helped put people there, and get them back home safely, including Poppy Northcutt, NASA’s first female engineer in mission control. Her original title – “Computress.” Current title – State President of the Texas chapter of the National Organization for Women.
Frances “Poppy” Northcutt was born in Louisiana in 1943 and she grew up in Texas, where she attended the University of Texas, majoring in mathematics. She didn’t plan to go into space engineering, but after college she took a job with a contractor for NASA as a “computress” where she did calculations for engineers. But her talent showed and they promoted her to the “technical staff” that did the engineer work.
She started working on the Apollo program as a return to earth specialist, working to make sure astronauts could get back home after the moon landing. She also helped get the Apollo 13 astronauts safely home after an oxygen tank exploded on board. For this, she and her coworkers were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Team Award.
She became involved in women’s rights advocacy after she discovered that the women at her company weren’t receiving overtime pay but the men were. And that was far from the only discrimination she experienced – the men actually had a camera on her so they could watch her whenever they wanted.
She helped organize women at her company to improve their health benefits and, in the early 1970s she joined the board of directors of the National Organization for Women. After the end of the Apollo program, she became a “women’s advocate” for Houston’s mayor. The position involved looking at women’s rights issues including discrimination in pay, poor treatment of sexual violence victims, and the underrepresentation of women on boards and commissions. Among her accomplishments for women’s rights – she was instrumental in getting Houston to allow women to serve as police officers and firefighters and she helped get a law passed preventing hospitals from charging women who came in for rape kits.
She saw serious flaws in the legal system’s treatment of women and, wanting to do more to help, she went to law school to fix gaps she found in the legal system’s treatment of women. She has subsequently served as an attorney fighting for women’s rights.
Poppy has a lunar crater named after her and you can hear her talk in her own words in the new PBS special, American Experience “Chasing the Moon”