With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon just days away, PBS’ “American Experience” does a magnificent job capturing what led up to that momentous event in its three-part documentary “Chasing the Moon.” It also captures the era in which Americans raced to achieve their goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” as President John F. Kennedy put it.
And you'll note that he said “man.”
In the midst of the six-hour documentary (Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m., KUED-Ch. 7) about the astonishing achievement, there’s a jaw-dropping segment that sums up the appalling sexism that pervaded both America and NASA.
There was one woman in NASA’s Mission Control, Frances “Poppy” Northcutt. She was a mathematician and engineer, and she was responsible for calculating Apollo 11′s trajectory on its return from the moon.
She was also young, blonde, attractive and wore stylish clothes. Which meant that she had to sit through interviews in which TV reporters asked her things like:
• “How did a girl of only 25 get into this job at such an early age?”
• “Aren’t the men jealous of you?”
• “How much attention do men in Mission Control pay to a woman wearing miniskirts?”
• And then this question-in-the-form-of-a-statement: “It’s been charged that when you walk into the mission operations control room, the mission grinds to a screeching halt.”
Five decades later, that’s jaw-dropping. In the late 1960s, it was just another day at work for Northcutt.
“This is 50 years ago,” Northcutt told TV critics. “At that time, every American woman, as well as women all around the world, was basically living in a sea of sexism. So, yes, it’s cringeworthy.”
It’s horrifying, as a matter of fact.
But when she went to work at NASA in 1965, Northcutt was a “computress.” Which, apparently, was the female version of a computer.
“Those of you who have seen the movie ‘Hidden Figures’ may have some flashbacks about that,” Northcutt said.
“Then later, I was promoted and made a member of the technical staff,” she said. “Nobody had really been to the moon before, so it’s not like you could get a college degree in that. So you learned a lot on the job, basically.”
And she learned what it was like to be the only woman in the room. Which was less of an issue with her co-workers, she said, than with members of the media who thought they were being cute.
(Half a century later, I’m embarrassed for journalists in general.)
“To a certain degree, I figured that was the way it was,” Northcutt said. “But that process, for me, was part of what enlightened my future. I became more and more aware of that sexism, especially being cast into the public light that way. … I became a very active feminist.”
After leaving NASA, Northcutt became the women’s advocate for the city of Houston; went to law school; became the first felony prosecutor in a domestic violence unit in Harris County, Texas; and went on to become the head of the National Organization for Women in Texas.
“So I tell people I’m a onetime rocket scientist, sometimes lawyer, and a full-time women’s rights activist these days,” Northcutt said.
Oh, and there’s a lunar crater named after her — Poppy.
Northcutt has no regrets about answering sexist questions when she worked at NASA.
“The mere fact that a lot of women found out for the first time that there was a woman in mission control was a very big deal,” she says in the “American Experience” segment. “I thought it was important that people understand that women can do these jobs.”