In every film or TV show about space flight, there will always be a scene that involves mission control and their army of quick-thinking engineers providing the hero astronauts with crucial and often life-saving information and strategies.
This isn’t just silver screen mythology: in real life, the men and women of mission control, from the flight director to the engineering experts they have at hand are often the underappreciated and overlooked heroes of the space race.
Their role in ensuring safe space flight for humans was immortalized during the Apollo program, when mission control ensured the safe flight and return home of astronauts traveling on rockets and spaceships built during the time when the internet wasn’t even a thing.
But despite their crucial importance to our understanding and appreciation of space flight, one member of mission control has been severely overlooked over the past few decades: Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, the only woman in the Apollo-era mission control room.
NASA’s Real Star
Poppy Northcutt single-handedly calculated Apollo 8’s return-to-Earth trajectories, which was the first time NASA was able to send a manned rocket and ship out of Earth’s orbit and do a quick run around the moon. She was also a critical member in helping the almost-doomed Apollo 13 astronauts during their mid-flight crisis. Her contributions and work in ensuring NASA’s astronauts came home cannot be understated, especially since she worked in pretty much every Apollo mission that worked on getting to the Moon.
Like many women of that era, Poppy Northcutt started out her career in NASA as a ‘computress’: basically, human calculators that were tasked with solving multiple equations (remember, this was before the advent of the processing computer) that the male engineers provided. This wasn’t enough for Poppy, of course, and she worked her way up the ladder and finally into Mission Control.
After her career with NASA, Poppy Northcutt continued to be an inspiration for women everywhere when she earned her law degree and became a staunch advocate of women’s rights, something she champions even today.
Poppy Northcutt: The Origin Story
Born in Louisiana in 1943, Poppy Northcutt spent most of her life in Texas, eventually studying at the University of Texas (now called UT Austin) and earning a degree in Mathematics. After college, she spent time in a NASA contracting company called TRW Systems, where she went straight to work on the Gemini project.
At that time, NASA relied heavily on ‘computress’: employees who were tasked with checking, re-checking, solving, and proving correct the equations that engineers and physicists would provide them. This was because, back in the mid-’60s, working with computers was a time-consuming and manpower-heavy affair, involving reams upon reams of paper punch cards. To make the computation work more efficient, NASA sub-contracted the computing –which was work that was done by hand by humans at the time –to companies like TRW Systems.
As the name suggests, most –if not all –the computress were female, as engineering was then considered a ‘man’s job’. But Poppy defied this with her determination and sheer talent. Poppy distinguished herself among her peers by not just being the best at what she does, but also because she wasn’t satisfied with just coming up with the correct numbers: she wanted to understand what the numbers meant.
It was this sense of curiosity that moved her up the ranks and onto the technical team, basically making her an engineer in all but name.
As contractors, Poppy and TRW Systems weren’t meant to be in Mission Control itself, but at the time of her working there, NASA found itself in the middle of a heated space race with the Russians, one that they were losing: Russia was the first to launch a satellite into orbit, the first to send a human into space, and the first to send a human in orbit.
NASA needed to step up their game, so they folded in thousands of contractors into the agency, and Poppy found herself right in the heart of the action: Mission Control room.
Poppy Northcutt Brings Them Home Safe
Poppy cut her teeth in the space race big leagues when she worked on Apollo 8. It was one of the most memorable and groundbreaking missions of NASA for a few reasons: it was going to be humanity’s first-ever crewed mission to reach Moon orbit using highly experimental equipment and vehicles that will later become the staple for all future lunar missions.
It was also going to be Poppy Northcutt and her team’s first-time providing all of the calculations –from orbital trajectories, space velocity, action-prediction, and everything else in between –to a NASA mission.
It paid off: Apollo 8 was a huge success, and Poppy and her team’s calculations became the basis for all future lunar missions. A key factor in the success of Poppy’s calculations is that they were designed to be used as a Mission Abort Program: all space missions have various types of protocols to compensate for the myriad unknown variables of space flights, whether it’s having a system in place for creating a countertop gardening system in your ship to having backup plans when the oxygen fails.
Having a Mission Abort Program allowed astronauts to stop mid-flight, turn around, and come back home safely. Poppy Northcutt and her team created calculations for this program that could be used both as regular spaceflight calculations and if something ever went wrong.
And on April 11, 1970, something did go wrong: an oxygen in the Service Module of the Apollo 13 program failed 2 days into the mission, necessitating a Mission Abort program. Apollo 13 failed its primary objective of reaching the Moon, but thanks to Poppy Northcutt and her team, they were able to guide the astronauts back to Earth safely and taught them the value of having backup and safety systems in place for future missions.
Poppy Northcutt: Life After NASA
Poppy Northcutt remained a key member of NASA and their contractor TRW Systems for a decade, working in the Gemini, Apollo, and other projects. She worked as an engineer while attending law school, and in 1981, she eventually earned her law degree from the University of Houston and left the engineering field.
After NASA, Poppy Northcutt worked for the District Attorney’s office in Harris County in Houston, becoming the first felony prosecutor in the domestic violence unit, worked as a court clerk for a Federal Appellate Judge in Alabama, before finally going into private practice. Throughout both her legal and engineering careers, Poppy Northcutt was well aware of the struggles women had in the professional world, leading her to lobby for more equal rights for women.
Despite the horrible chauvinism and misogyny of her time, Poppy Northcutt defied all odds and became a crucial member of NASA and was critical in bringing home astronauts safely. It’s also worth noting that she and her team’s calculations paved the way for modern computers and, in effect, the top trending techs of today.