Back then, in the ’60s, rocket scientists were the badass dudes of innovation. Just the title was about the highest brainiac accolade that could be conferred. As in, he’s smart, but he’s no rocket scientist.
As NASA worked relentlessly to fulfill John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon by decade’s end, it turned to the nation’s engineers. Many of them were fresh out of school, running the gamut from mechanical to electrical engineers, because that’s mostly what was taught in universities, and almost exclusively to white men.
In archival Apollo 11 photos and footage, it’s a “Where’s Waldo?” exercise to spot a woman or person of color.
“I don’t want to be politically incorrect here, but the workforce, the culture, was white male. In the firing room, we had almost 500 people and we have one female, one black guy and one Hispanic,” says Ike Rigell, 96, chief engineer and deputy director of launch vehicle operations at the Kennedy Space Center in Central Florida. “That was the culture.”
Brevard County was the nation’s space boom town of smart young people. Its population soared to 230,006 by 1970, a tenfold increase in two decades. NASA and its many contractors were the Google and Apple of their day — the place to be.
Space travel was new — Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin took his breakthrough flight only in 1961, followed weeks later by Alan Shepard — and popular culture was smitten. Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a dystopian meditation on time, space travel and a willful computer ruled the box office in 1968.
Television offered the final frontier of “Star Trek,” the indelible adventures of the Starship Enterprise as it roamed a galaxy in the 23rd century. “I Dream of Jeannie” featured a pair of Cocoa Beach astronauts and a midriff-baring genie.
Richard Nixon was newly in the White House. American military involvement in Vietnam, the war that defined the decade, was an open wound. Engineering and science students received Selective Service deferments, their fields deemed critical to the national interest. Florida NASA test team project engineer Bob Sieck, a former Air Force lieutenant, was informed that he was “a national asset with responsibility on a government mission. I’m just not wearing a uniform anymore.”
The 400,000 people in the space program — the population of modern Tulsa — were engaged in a different battle, and they were spread across the country. Congress doled out money to virtually every state for “the largest civilian project ever undertaken,” Charles Fishman wrote in “One Giant Leap.” He calculates that “every hour of spaceflight required more than 1 million hours of work on the ground.”
“We were at the height of the Vietnam War, competing for dollars. The money was flowing. We had a mission. We were in a race with another country, an adversary. That was what the whole thing was about,” says Jim Ogle, who worked in McDonnell Douglas’s Saturn electronics division and was stationed in the firing room the July morning of the launch. “Russia had beaten us into space. The decision was we had to beat them.”
That year, the supersonic transport Concorde took its maiden flight from Toulouse, France, introducing the notion that mere mortals — deep-pocketed mortals — could also soon travel somewhere faster than the speed of sound.
Music, too, gazed toward the heavens and into the future. The week of the Apollo 11 liftoff, Zager and Evans’s “In the Year 2525,” Blood Sweat & Tears’ “Spinning Wheel” (“What goes up must come down”), Oliver’s “Good Morning Starshine” (from the Broadway rock musical juggernaut “Hair”) and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” crested the Billboard chart.
The space program imagined the future. Yet the community of trim haircuts, shaved chins, white shirts (with contractors’ company badges emblazoned on their pockets) and pressed slacks, led by many veterans of World War II, seemed decades removed from the prevalent culture that was shaggier, angrier and sometimes stoned.
“Midnight Cowboy” played in the movie theaters. “Easy Rider” opened two days before the launch. The Stonewall riots occurred a few weeks before liftoff.
“I wasn’t antiwar at the time,” says Parrish Nelson Hirasaki, one of the few female engineers in the space program, who worked on the heat shield in Houston. “I came from a family with a lot of people in the military. It was what it was. We hadn’t turned the corner that [the war] was wrong.” The work environment “was much more conservative in general than the rest of the country. But not for Texas.”
The mission’s mantra was “Failure is not an option” — the title of flight director Gene Kranz’s memoir. The world outside was not ignored. They watched the war when they went home at night but didn’t discuss it much at work. Staff members were aware that many Americans were critical of billions being spent on space when the War on Poverty hadn’t been won on Earth. But they held the conviction that what they did mattered and would alter history.
In 1966, Frances “Poppy” Northcutt was hired as a “computress,” a title that sounds as though she was a female machine. She worked for TRW, an aerospace pioneer in Houston later acquired by Northrop Grumman. Still, equipment was big and slow. Computers were the size of apartments. Punch cards were fed into computers, the info arriving hours or days later, in heaps of printouts. Communication was by phone — or speakerphone for a group — and TWX, a telex machine. Hardware was assembled from woven wire and metal rings knitted with long needles, requiring weeks of work. Backup equipment was installed for nearly everything because things failed. Things failed all the time.
When Northcutt was promoted after more than a year, her salary spiked to $150 a week, a raise of 60 percent. She became a return-to-Earth specialist, calculating the mission trajectory — her degree is in mathematics — and became the first woman in a technical position in Houston.
More often, women were employed as secretaries. Before email, correspondence had to be typed by someone, and with multiple carbon copies.
“Everything was written as if in a foreign language,” says Barbara Higginbotham Ogle, a secretary and the 1,000th employee to be hired in 1966 for $5.44 an hour by Douglas Aircraft Co. in Florida. (It became McDonnell Douglas the following year). Her skills: typing at 71 cwpm (correct words per minute) and shorthand at 140 words a minute “It was a steep learning curve,” she says. “Typing orders for managers, we had to be perfect. No Wite-Out. When you were preparing for a launch, there was an endless amount of paper coming in.”
Judy Wyatt served as secretary to George Low, the manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program in Houston. (He was named NASA deputy administrator in December 1969.) “I was the early girl,” says Wyatt, one of three secretaries who took dictation and typed his letters (both at 120 correct words per minute) from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Fear that the Soviets would land on the moon first hung over the mission. In 1969, “I remember Mr. Low asking Dr. Gilruth [director of Manned Spacecraft Center Robert Gilruth], ‘What are our friends across the water doing?’ meaning the Russians. And Dr. Gilruth answered, ‘We are A-OK,’ that we were cleared for launch.”
Women also served on the medical staff. “About 30 percent of the computer programmers were women,” Northcutt says, like the women heralded in “Hidden Figures.” At higher echelons? Not so much.
At TRW, “there were a couple hundred men. It was very engineer-style macho. By the time of Apollo 11, people were sort of used to me,” Northcutt says. “I was used to being the only woman in the room.” And she was in the room all the time. “We were working insane hours, seven days a week.”
It was a tumultuous year of change, yet women in the space program weren’t permitted to wear slacks. Northcutt and Hirasaki were in their 20s, with long hair, and favored miniskirts.
“There were a couple of guys who were pretty ‘handsy.’ Nobody did a thing about it,” Hirasaki says. But “nobody was going to mess with Poppy. They’d ask her to make them coffee, and she would say, ‘My ovaries do not uniquely qualify me to make coffee.’ ”
Northcutt was assigned to Mission Control, working in the Mission Planning and Analysis room. Cameras pointed everywhere during testing, on multiple channels with constant chatter from engineers.
“You listened to these various channels in your headset, a challenge to tune in or tune out what you needed to hear,” she says.
Then Northcutt overheard chatter specifically about her.
“I realized that one camera was focused entirely on me,” she says. Working for the space program “illuminated of lot of things I didn’t know about, like wage protections that discriminated against women.” Later, Northcutt became a lawyer and president of the Texas chapter of the National Organization for Women.
They caroused with the same intensity they brought to the workplace. Launch parties after each mission were blowouts. “It was fun,” Hirasaki says, echoing the sentiment of many engineers. “It was really exciting. Everyone who wasn’t in the program thought we were rock stars.”
She lived in the Balboa apartment complex a couple of blocks from the Manned Spacecraft Center on Nassau Bay. Weekends were long parties. “We had hootenannies in the apartments, 30 people sitting around singing songs by the Kingston Trio and Joan Baez.” She married neighbor and fellow engineer John Hirasaki, one of the few Asian Americans employed by the program. Ultimately, he was given a plum assignment as recovery engineer inside the Mobile Quarantine Facility, a converted Airstream trailer, with the flight crew and surgeon aboard the USS Hornet, 900 miles southwest of Hawaii in the North Pacific Ocean.
Work, so much work, became a challenge to family life.
“Engineers are different,” Jim Ogle says. “They worked all those hours, then came home to the garage, building a sailboat, building an airplane.” Northcutt recalls that in Houston, “a lot of guys had sailboats, but they worked on their boats more than they took them out sailing.”
With work all-encompassing, “it took a real toll on the family environment. A lot of families just didn’t survive,” Sieck says. “It was long hours. You finally got a Saturday off, you played golf or went fishing or had an afternoon poker party with fellow worker friends.” Sunday, it was often back to work.
Divorce was rampant. Especially in Florida. Cape Canaveral became the capital of kaput unions. The court was overwhelmed.
In Brevard County, 1,600 divorce cases were filed each year in the late 1960s, and 1,200 granted, Judge Volie Williams told a local publication.
Ike Rigell made sure that wouldn’t happen to him. “I left my work at the space center,” he says.
“That saved our marriage,” says Kathryn Rigell. “When we got him, he came home, he was daddy. He was Ike.”
During those amazing days in July, the world turned its eyes to the moon and glory showered on NASA and the space program. “We’d done our job,” Rigell says. “There was this tremendous feeling of elation.”
Within days, layoff notices started papering Brevard County.
The Earth continued to spin on its axis. The moon illuminated the night sky. Then, three weeks after splashdown, more than 400,000 young people gathered for a music festival at a dairy farm near Woodstock, N.Y.
Correction: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect name for director of Manned Spacecraft Center Robert Gilruth and for Nassau Bay.