The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 came and went in a blaze of nostalgia for the moment when humans made their first awkward footfall on another world–a moment when (for the true believers, at least) it seemed like humans might keep going and start exploring the whole solar system in person. But Apollo was about much more than Apollo 11, and the space race was about much more than Apollo.
In many ways we are still learning the lessons from those heady days. Politically motivated goals are no way to build a sustainable program of exploration. Modern computer power doesn’t necessarily provide much help with basic engineering challenges. Anticipating and preparing for disaster is an effective way to maximize the likelihood of success. And judging from the number of Twitter trolls complaining bitterly that NASA now refers neutrally to “crewed” or “human” spaceflight (rather than “manned,” as in the old days), the culture wars of the Moon-landing era are still not fully settled.
To get a fresh perspective on the Apollo days, I spoke with Poppy Northcutt, an unconventional player in the NASA of the time. She was a TRW contractor assigned to NASA Mission Control’s Mission Planning and Analysis room. She was part of the team that designed the return-to-Earth trajectory for Apollo 8, treating the maneuvers as a set of potential disasters to be averted. That trajectory set the template for the even more difficult return of Apollo 11 and the other Moon-landing missions that followed. Northcutt was unconventional in another notable way: She was the first woman engineer to work in Mission Control. An edited version of our conversation follows.
What is your most vivid memory from your work on the Apollo missions?
Probably the most vivid memory I have is Apollo 8–the first time the astronauts went behind the Moon. The reason that would be the most vivid for me is, I worked on the return-to-Earth program. They’re doing a maneuver behind the Moon [based on the planned trajectory], and we’re out of contact with them. If the maneuver goes bad you may have to do an abort, and you won’t have much time.
What was it like during those moments of silence during Apollo 8?
We are out of contact for about 30 or 40 minutes, but it’s like a lifetime. They’re doing this maneuver and you have no idea whether it’s going well or not. They have no onboard capacity to do a return to Earth; they’re totally dependent on getting these maneuvers from us. If the maneuver went really badly, they could be on a crash course with the Moon. This is really the first time we’d ever lost contact with a spacecraft. You have these little, tiny periods during reentry when they lose contact, but that’s just a few seconds. To have the spacecraft out of contact for a long period of time was a new thing, and everyone was really nervous about it.
They were late coming out on the other side [from behind the Moon]. You have clocks everywhere, all of these countdown clocks. One of them is the clock until AOS, acquisition of signal. You know exactly when Apollo 8 is supposed to come out. If they come out early, that’s not good; if they come out late, that’s not good. They didn’t come out on time. I don’t know how late they were, but I could hear the CapCom [capsule communication–the point of contact on the ground] calling out to them, “Apollo 8, this is Houston, Apollo 8, this is Houston,” and they didn’t get anything back. It was really just a matter of seconds, but those were the longest seconds I ever lived through.
How did it feel when you finally heard back from the Apollo 8 crew?
It’s an immediate breathe out, but then there’s also—what does this mean? Why were they late? Was this maneuver any good? And you’re not going to really know until you get tracking data, guidance data that tells you exactly where they are. What course are they really on? Is this a good orbit or not? It takes a few minutes before that comes in, because they’re getting tracking data from all over the Earth, and it has to go through the computer and be processed. It’s still a few minutes before you know that it was a good orbit.
What’s the answer? Why did Apollo 8 run a few seconds late?
The problem turned out to be mass concentrations on the Moon [known as “mascons” and not fully understood until decades later]. The Moon hadn’t been fully mapped, so there were perturbations on their path that we didn’t know about. Apollo 8 did the initial mapping of the Moon. When the crews went back on subsequent missions, they were coming out exactly on time. We weren’t having that problem. But it was very nerve wracking.
Tell me about the culture inside Mission Control. It was a very male-dominated field at the time–
What did it feel like being such an outlier? Was it intimidating? Was in empowering?
By the time I went into the control center, I was used to being the only woman [engineer] in the room; that’s basically what it was like. But I did not know when I first went over there [to NASA, as a TRW contractor] that I was going to be the first woman who worked in an operational control center. That was not in the original plan. What happened is that they accelerated Apollo 8 because the government was afraid the Russians were going to beat us [to the Moon]. Because they accelerated the schedule, that cut down on learning time for the people in the mission control center about learning how to do maneuvers coming back to the Earth from the Moon. We were asked to go over and help people get up to speed on how to do this. Coming back to Earth from the Moon is a much more difficult process than doing deorbit from Earth orbit.
Anyway, I went over there to the control center, and it was pretty obvious that I was an outlier, to say the least. The guys overall were pretty good, but I knew I was being watched. I knew I was definitely different.
Did that feeling of being an outsider affect your work?
The time that really brought that home the most was that during simulations, I would occasionally hear some chatter. We’d listen to bunches of audio feeds from different places; part of the challenge of working over there [in Mission Control] is figuring out what you’re listening to and who you need to tune into. I would occasionally hear some chatter about, “Hey, can you believe what’s on channel whatever-whatever.” I was busy, but one day I thought, “I wonder what is on that channel.” So I turned it on, and it turned out it was…me. It was just a camera that was pointed at me.
Um…wow. Did you ask them to turn the camera off?
Nope! We didn’t even have the terminology for dealing with that at the time. And besides, my basic feeling was that I really didn’t want to make a scene about it. Mission Control is not just one room, it’s a whole bunch of rooms, so there were guys in the basement at the real-time computer complex, guys scattered all over the place. I was an oddity, obviously, not everybody knew what I was doing there. I figured they would get over it.
How did you deal with it the meantime? What was the experience like for you?
It was more of an irritation. The first thing that came to mind, quite frankly, was, “What have I been doing? Have I been scratching?” You know, the self-consciousness of knowing you’re being watched. “How long has this been going on?” The second thought is, “They’ll get over it, this is just an irritation. I just need to pay attention and be careful of how I’m sitting. Now I know.” Knowledge is power. That’s really it. I knew they’d get past it.
And did the men eventually get past it?
Yeah, I think so.
You stayed with TRW a long time. How long were you stationed in Mission Control?
I was there for Apollo 8, 10, 11, 12, and 13.
What were your experiences like on Apollo 11? You were involved with the recent documentary, Apollo: Missions to the Moon, so I know you’ve been reliving those memories a lot recently.
I was at home when the Moon landing itself occurred, so I was watching it the same way that everybody was watching it. I wouldn’t be at the control center if we had two people on the surface of the Moon, because we’re not going to be coming home then. [Northcutt was working only on the return-to-Earth phase of the mission.] That was my rest period. I’m watching this on a tiny 9-inch black and white TV, grainy. That was the experience.
Now if you watch the documentaries, they’re in IMAX, huge screens, brilliant color, they’ve got all this archival footage that wasn’t available back then, as well as all this archival audio. It’s a completely different experience than it was at the time. For me, it’s hard to watch it. When you’re there, you are focusing on exactly what you’re doing and not thinking about the overall danger of the thing. I was very aware at the time of how dangerous it was, but you compartmentalize that. You can’t afford to think about those kinds of things—they’re distracting. It’s uncomfortable to watch the documentaries now. It’s too nerve-wracking.
How was the Apollo 11 return-to-Earth, the part of the mission you were working on?
It went like clockwork. It’s still nerve-wracking in the sense that it’s important. They’re always doing maneuvers around the backside of the Moon, but at least it was not new.
You were also involved with the Apollo 13 return-to-Earth. That must have really been something new.
I was very involved with the process of bringing them back home, but you are wrong when you say that was new. Our [return-to-Earth] program was designed as an abort program. It ended up being used as the program for nominal returns as well, but it was actually designed for aborts. That was our task, to come up with an abort program. We had done contingency planning, we already knew how to use the descent propulsion engine, we had practiced that. We had practiced using the ascent propulsion engine. We had practiced all of that stuff. [During Apollo 13] we were just doing what we had planned–what that program was designed to do.
It was nerve-wracking in that we knew we had a mission that was in trouble. We knew that we had a big engine out. We didn’t know the extent of the damage. The people who were having to make it up as they went along, who had the real tough challenge, were the people dealing with the environmental issues. Our program worked and did just what it was supposed to do.
What was your career path after Apollo 13?
I worked for TRW altogether for about 10 years. Part of that time I was loaned to the city of Houston, I was on the mayor’s staff. Then TRW lost its major contract at NASA. I could have come out to California and work on defense weapons systems; I did that briefly and I really didn’t like it. I got very active in women’s rights, and I decided to go to law school at the University of Houston Law Center. But those are stories for another time.
[Northcutt became president of the Texas chapter of the National Organization of Women. She worked as both a prosecutor and a criminal defense lawyer, frequently handling cases involving domestic violence and reproductive rights.]