The Civil Rights Act had just passed and the slide rule was giving way to computers when Frances “Poppy” Northcutt arrived at NASA’s Houston campus in 1965, eager to join the space race. But her job title stunned her: “computress.”
Northcutt, then 22 and fresh out of the University of Texas at Austin with a mathematics degree, soon learned that at NASA, men were engineers, women “computresses” or “human computers,” with less status and less pay.
But Northcutt persevered, and three years later, during the Apollo 8 mission, she would become the first woman to work in Mission Control.
As the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing approaches, Northcutt and other women who helped America’s space efforts are reflecting on their often unheralded roles — and the indignities they endured. Many were lone pioneers, fighting behind the scenes to not only build their own careers, but to advance those of other women and minorities at NASA.
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