In December of 1968, Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to leave earth, orbit the moon, and return safely. The crew consisted of three male astronauts; Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders. There were also dozens of men back at Mission Control, but only one woman: Twenty-five year old Frances “Poppy” Northcutt.
Poppy Northcutt was the first woman to work as part of NASA’s Mission Control. She was the first woman to put on the headsets. She helped design and write the computer program which plotted the return to Earth trajectory for Apollo 8 and subsequent missions.
Northcutt started her career by attending the University of Texas and studied Mathematics because she wanted to get “a man’s job … there were advantages to doing things where you could get paid more and avoiding women’s work,” she remarked when asked about her choice of major. She graduated in three and a half years and then went to work for TRW, an aerospace contractor, in 1965. At the time TRW had a contract to partner with NASA on the Apollo program which Northcutt began working on.
Northcutt’s first job title at TRW was Computress, a female technical aid that did a lot of data analysis. She quickly started asking a lot of questions and taking the source code home every night to read it. “I started looking around at these dudes that were working with me and I thought, ‘You Know, I’m as smart as they are,” said Northcutt. The other engineers noticed her talent and she was quickly promoted to “member of the technical staff”, the general term for engineer.
Northcutt’s contributions to the return to earth trajectory program were incredibly valuable, as she found a flaw and corrected it in the early design.
So on December 24th 1968 Northcutt sat wearing the headphones in Mission Control the day Apollo 8 rounded to the Dark Side of the Moon, where no communication with the astronauts was possible. “Everyone in the room is not breathing… Nobody’s heart is beating. We’re just totally still waiting,” recalls Northcutt. When Misson Control regained communication with Apollo 8 after it circumnavigated the moon cheers broke out in the room and on December 27th 1968 Apollo 8 returned safely to Earth.
Northcutt continued to work for TRW on the Apollo missions, working in the real-time computer center. She once again played a pivotal role in Apollo 13. For this launch Northcutt had traveled to Kennedy Space Center to see the launch in person as her team was not originally scheduled to be at Mission Control during the flight. However, when Apollo 13 ran into trouble, several frantic attempts were made to reach Northcutt as she had an unlisted number. Eventually she was reached and rushed back to Texas. Northcutt and the other engineers on the team were able to help recalculate Apollo 13’s return trajectory and bring the crew safely home. For their part in this mission, Northcutt and her team members were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Team Award.
While continuing to work at TRW, Northcutt attended law school at the University of Houston Law Center and graduated in 1984. She is currently a criminal defense lawyer.