Old is Gold: Frances ‘Poppy’ Northcutt
Frances ‘Poppy’ Northcutt is remembered by Wikipedia first and foremost as a “Texas attorney who began her career as a ‘computress’ and then an engineer for the technical staff on NASA’s Apollo Program during the space race” and “the first female engineer to work in NASA’s Mission Control during Apollo 8.” Northcutt, on the other hand, describes herself in her Twitter bio as: “One time rocket scientist, sometime lawyer, full time feminist,” and as history shows us, it was her experience as a rocket scientist that ultimately directed her career path. Here’s how it happened…
Northcutt was born in Many, Louisiana on the 10th of August 1943. She grew up and was educated in Texas, graduating from the University of Texas with a major in Mathematics. In 1965, a NASA contractor hired her as a computer programmer for the Apollo Programme (she was one of several women fulfilling this type of role at the time), but she was soon promoted to become the first female engineer at Mission Control.
In this new role, Northcutt was part of a team responsible for plotting the trajectory for the safe return of Apollo 8, the history-making Apollo 11, and Apollo 13 from the moon to Earth. She and the rest of her team were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Team Award after bringing Apollo 13 safely back to Earth after one of its oxygen tanks exploded.
While she received much media exposure as the first female engineer working at Mission Control, her position also came with many workplace challenges, as she explained in an interview with the Houston Chronicle.
“The concepts of hostile work environment, of sexual harassment, those concepts didn’t exist at that time. I did not think it would be a good idea to call attention to it. When you’re the only woman going into a sea of men, you want to be a member of the team. What you don’t want to do is emphasize that you are different, so you put up with some stuff that you shouldn’t have to put up with.”
But that didn’t mean she ignored it forever. Quite the opposite in fact. Her treatment by her teammates – she discovered at one point that they had a video camera trained on her and had been watching her for months – and the radically unequal pay – her male colleagues bought big homes, expensive cars and boats, while she lived in a one-bedroom apartment and drove an old VW Beetle – spurred her on to make a difference for women in the United States.
“I felt a lot of pressure because I was the only woman. I started looking around at these dudes that were working with me and I thought, ‘you know, I’m as smart as you are.’”
When her time with the Apollo programme came to an end, Northcutt became the first Women’s Advocate for the city of Texas during which time she tackled gender discrimination in the Houston Fire Department and was instrumental in helping to pass a law that forbid hospitals in the state of Texas from charging women who were admitted for a rape kit.
Northcutt also began a law degree at the University of Houston, which she graduated summa cum laude in 1984. As a lawyer, she has chosen to focus on cases relating to domestic violence and reproductive rights. Today, aged 75, Poppy Northcutt still practices law and, as president of the National Organization for Women (the Houston and Texas chapters), is actively involved in campaigning for women’s rights. She has been featured in two 2019 documentaries celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo’s landing on the moon: Apollo: Missions to the Moon (National Geographic) and Chasing the Moon.