JoAnn Morgan: The Only Woman In The Firing Room During Apollo 11

Jul 5, 2019
Originally published on July 12, 2019 10:46 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

On the morning of July 16, 1969, dozens of technicians and flight controllers walked into the firing room at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. They were there to count down the launch of Apollo 11's mission. One of them was JoAnn Morgan. She was the first woman engineer at the Kennedy Space Center and the only woman in that room. Brendan Byrne of WMFE looks back at Morgan's NASA career.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: As NASA was testing its rockets during the Apollo program, it was standard policy to actually lock technicians and launch directors inside the firing room blockhouses for the hours-long tests. JoAnn Morgan says there was one problem.

JOANN MORGAN: Those blockhouses had no ladies restroom. The security guard would have to clear the men's room. And I was never locked up in them at liftoff for tests or launches there. I always had to vacate.

BYRNE: Morgan had an important job - an instrumentation controller. It was her job to monitor the readings from all the sensors on the rockets, motors and computers. But a woman in the firing room was a sight not before seen. These tests were run mostly by military men who probably never worked shoulder to shoulder with a woman engineer.

MORGAN: At first, a test supervisor came over and said, oh, we don't have women here. Eek. I didn't know what to do, so I called my director - Karl Sendler was his name - and I said, Mr. Sendler, this test supervisor tells me that women aren't allowed out here. He said, oh, JoAnn, you get the test done. Bring me the data. You know, don't worry about it.

BYRNE: And she did. She became a familiar face in the testing rooms. She monitored sensors, and she monitored Soviet signals attempting to scramble communication and sabotage the flight. This was the Space Race, after all.

MORGAN: They got used to me, and they accepted me. And so by Apollo 11, them putting me out there to be there at liftoff was probably not that big a surprise. And after launch, the test supervisor, who happened to be the same one who'd told me I couldn't be at blockhouse 34, he came down and gave me a cigar when he was handing out cigars.

BYRNE: Morgan's career began at the University of Florida. She spent her summer breaks working at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, where she worked with Wernher von Braun, the scientist who designed Apollo 11's Saturn V rocket. So nearly a decade later, Morgan wasn't surprised to find herself on console in a sea of men in white shirts and black ties as three humans left Earth for the moon.

MORGAN: How did I get there? I had been working hard for 10 years.

BYRNE: At Kennedy Space Center, Morgan was a trailblazer, though she'd never call herself that. She was the first female engineer at KSC. She was also outspoken and innovative, traits that took her from the firing room to the boardroom, making her the first woman to become a senior executive at the Space Center.

SUZY CUNNINGHAM: She was a huge glass ceiling breaker.

BYRNE: Suzy Cunningham is a NASA engineer who began working for the agency in the mid-'80s. She began working with Morgan, who pushed her to speak out and take career risks.

CUNNINGHAM: She is proof that it's OK to be a female and be assertive. I love her moxie.

BYRNE: Morgan mentored many women and men during her more-than-four-decade-long career at NASA. And the same Apollo 11 firing room at KSC is now led by a woman - Charlie Blackwell-Thompson.

CHARLIE BLACKWELL-THOMPSON: I think she would be very proud that we have a female leader as part of this launch countdown team.

BYRNE: Even in retirement, Morgan is still fighting for equality in engineering. She sponsors scholarships at schools with low female enrollment in engineering programs and lately has been focusing on getting more Native American women in the field. As the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing approaches, Morgan welcomes the chance to reflect on her time at NASA.

MORGAN: That so many people are realizing, oh, my gosh, that's a lady there in that launch control center - what all has she done? And it's been a lot. Since I didn't have any dull days, what better work could you ask for?

BYRNE: For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne at the Kennedy Space Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.