Science

Moon landing mission: The woman without whom Apollo 11 would NOT have happened


JoAnn Morgan, the instrumentation controller for NASA’s Apollo 11, was integral in getting the first men to the Moon in 1969, but has been largely overlooked throughout history because of her gender. From starting as a “precious little kid”, as she described herself, who had a natural talent and interest in both science and maths, Ms Morgan battled against the odds after leaving school to help put Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong on the Moon. Shortly after leaving school, Ms Morgan applied for an internship with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency.

Her work there as a 17-year old trainee straight out of high school quickly garnered attention where she became a University of Florida trainee for the Army at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Cape Canaveral then was an army base, but an ambitious government agency had just been established nearby, which was created with challenging the Soviet Union’s space achievements.

In July 1958, this agency had been dubbed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – or NASA – which began using Cape Canaveral as a launch base for rockets.

Officials at NASA noted Ms Morgan’s potential and she was quickly snapped up, working there in the day while studying for a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics from Jacksonville State University in her spare time.

Ms Morgan’s ambition and dedication was highly regarded by senior officials at NASA, and she fell under the tutorage of Dr Wernher von Braun – the man who would later go on to be the chief architect of the Saturn V rocket which sent the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon – to become a Junior Engineer on his team.

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JoAnn Morgan played an integral part in the 1969 Moon landing (Image: NASA)

However, this is when she began encountering problems because she was a woman.

She later heard from colleagues that her supervisor called all of the other engineers into a room, and told them: “This is a young lady who wants to be an engineer. You’re to treat her like an engineer. But she’s not your buddy. You call her Ms Hardin [her surname before marriage]. You’re not to be familiar.”

A man replied: “Well, can we ask her to make coffee?”

Mr White said: “No. You don’t ask an engineer to make coffee.”

Ms Morgan described in a recent blog post for NASA how a “startling moment” came when she was sitting at her desk and a test supervisor came over and smacked her back.

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The Apollo 11 crew (Image: GETTY)

The controller said: “The supervisor came and just whacked me over the back — actually hit me in the back! He said ‘we don’t have women in here!’ He had this ugly look on his face and I thought, uh-oh.”

Others came forward to her defence, with Rocco Petrone, who managed the development of the Saturn Vlunar launch vehicle and operation, telling her: “JoAnn, you are welcome here.”

Ms Morgan said: “You have to realise that everywhere I went — if I went to a procedure review, if I went to a post-test critique, almost every single part of my daily work — I’d be the only woman in the room.

“I had a sense of loneliness in a way, but on the other side of that coin, I wanted to do the best job I could.”

When it came to crunch-time for the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, Ms Morgan was not originally allowed in the control room, despite having worked on all previous Apollo programs as well as being involved in Mercury and Gemini initiatives.

However, Karl Sendler, the man who developed the launch processing systems for the Apollo program, “went to bat for me”.

Mr Sendler had to ask permission from the very top for Ms Morgan to be present and he was granted his wish.

Mr Sendler called Ms Morgan into his office and said: “You are our best communicator. You’re going to be on the console for Apollo 11!”

Ms Morgan told NASA: “I was just thrilled. My life was coming together. I would get to be there for the launch, feel the shockwave hit, and then — I got to go on vacation!”

The mission was a resounding success, and of the many iconic images that have come from the first Moon landing, one in particular is very special to her.

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Ms Morgan can be seen in the centre of the room (Image: NASA)

A photograph of the control room shows Ms Morgan as the only woman in a room full of hundreds of men.

Despite the photograph becoming iconic, Ms Morgan hopes women in the control room of space missions will not be newsworthy in the future.

She said: “I look at that picture of the firing room where I’m the only woman. And I hope all the pictures now that show people working on the missions to the Moon and onto Mars, in rooms like Mission Control or Launch Control or wherever — that there will always be several women.

“I hope that photos like the ones I’m in don’t exist anymore.”

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