Seated at her console in the firing room at Kennedy Space Centre, JoAnn Morgan felt the building shudder and the windows rattle as the Saturn V rocket shooting the Apollo XI crew to the moon thundered into the sky 50 years ago tomorrow.
Yet a photograph snapped shortly after became iconic not only for the significance of what had just occurred three miles away on the launchpad, but for Ms Morgan’s mere presence in the room.
“I was the only woman among this sea of men working the launch and it really shouldn’t be remarkable, but in those days it was. It was a huge, big deal,” she told The Times.
As the first female engineer at the centre, it was not a lack of skills that initially led to her being shut out of the firing room — the nerve centre of the countdown and lift-off operations. It was her gender.
So alien was it to the male-dominated workforce to have a woman among them at lift-off that it took special dispensation from the centre’s director, Dr Kurt Debus, for her to be allowed in on July 16, 1969 to join the team launching Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon.
“The director of information systems called me down and said ‘You’re going to be on console’ — he was quite excited; I didn’t know at the time he’d had to get permission from the top,” she recalled.
“I was thrilled. I had never been allowed to be in the firing room for lift-off, so I didn’t have the physical experience of the shockwave hitting the building. That was an electrifying moment. I’d moved up to being a senior engineer as instrumentation controller and I felt like I’d earned it.”
As a girl she dreamt of becoming a piano teacher. In 1958, aged 17, she changed trajectory after watching the launch of America’s first satellite, Explorer-1, which discovered the Van Allen Belts—bands of radiation around the Earth.
“I thought ‘Oh my goodness, this new knowledge is going to change the world we live in and I want to be part of it.’ No other girls that were my friends, or grown women, thought that was a viable path for life. Not for a female.”
She landed a summer engineering internship at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Cape Canaveral, Florida — which merged into the US space agency, Nasa, in 1962—helping to test and launch rockets under the leadership of rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun and his team.
Her bosses were mentors and protectors, even sending a security guard to make regular walk-rounds to warn off ill-mannered colleagues.
“There were episodes like me opening the door to the supply cabinet and seeing nude pinups from Playboy magazine, cartoons, little ugly jokes. The first time that I went to get something out, the men all stopped to watch my reaction,” she said. “They were told to take them down.”
Sometimes she would get obscene telephone calls at her desk. She recalls a television cameraman suggesting that she should stop and put on some lipstick during a rocket test. She was also advised to avoid bending over at her desk, to avoid cameras zooming in on her backside.
Dr Debus recognised her for her talent, however, encouraging her to dump a history course at college and focus instead on spherical trigonometry, algorithms and trajectory analysis.
“He said ‘You won’t need that history, you’re going to be making history,’” she remembered.
She broke one glass ceiling after another at Nasa during a 45-year career that took her right up to the rank of associate director at the space centre before her retirement in 2003. Now 78, she sponsors university scholarships for young women and men in science, technology, engineering and maths.
The firing room where she made history in 1969 is now led by Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, Nasa’s first female launch director, who is working on the Artemis programme to send the first woman astronaut to the moon.
“My career wasn’t necessarily about being a trailblazer or pioneer; it wasn’t a role I picked for myself, it was an accidental legacy,” Ms Morgan said.
“The future makes it entirely likely that you can be whatever’s inside you that you want to be and, especially for young girls, find what really makes your intellect perk. You don’t have to be the only woman in the picture.”