Poppy Northcutt: The return-to-Earth specialist who helped bring Apollo 11 back

Poppy Northcutt thought a manned mission to Mars should come next -- and she wanted to be there in mission control.

Mathematician calculated the trajectories that returned astronauts from the moon

Poppy Northcutt, a member of the Apollo mission team, talks about her work and the "unreality" of her workplace. 3:20

Poppy Northcutt knew what she was working on was historic.

"I feel like I'm participating in something that's going to be part of history," she told a CBC interviewer in 1969.

Northcutt was a member of the team at mission control with NASA's Apollo program at the time of the moon landing in July of that year.

"I think the space program will be marked as one of the most significant things that occurred in the 20th century," she added.

Northcutt's work on the program had begun with Apollo 8, and according to the magazine Texas Monthly, "she would help guide every crew of astronauts back home through Apollo 13."  

Her first job title: 'computress'

With a degree in mathematics, Northcutt had started working for a NASA contractor, TRW, as a "computress," she told the magazine in a profile earlier this month.

She explained that her team's job on Apollo 11 had been "to optimize what you can optimize in terms of a trajectory." 

In the 1969 CBC interview, she talked about the simulations her team went through to handle any possible challenge that might confront an Apollo flight crew.

"Everything goes wrong in simulations," she explained. "You have these devious little men that plan simulations. They plan to do everything wrong so that they can mess everybody up."

"So when we got to the real mission, it seemed like a piece of cake, really."

Next stop, Mars?

Northcutt already knew what she wanted to work on next.

"I would like to see manned missions to Mars, unmanned probes to Jupiter and some of the outer planets, and I would like to participate in planning those missions," she told the unidentified interviewer in 1969.

But she told Texas Monthly that even before Apollo 11 was complete, she had heard that staff were being laid off.

In this July 24, 1969 photo made available by NASA, flight controllers at the Mission Operations Control Room in the Mission Control Center at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, celebrate the successful conclusion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. (NASA/Associated Press)

Knowing that a mission to Mars was unlikely, she went to work for a contractor that made missiles, and then left behind the work of calculating trajectories.

Instead, she became the women's advocate for the city of Houston, Tex. and eventually went to law school and became a criminal defence lawyer.  

Air of unreality

"My experience of being one of the few women that was in a technical role — of getting some limelight and being asked about the role of women — those things just illuminated for me what was going on," Northcutt said in 2019, talking about her career shift. "At the same time, the second wave of feminism was just very active, very emerging. So I just became increasingly aware of the degree of sexism that there was in our society."

In the 2019 PBS documentary series Chasing the Moon, Northcutt can be seen talking to American science reporter Jules Bergman. He asked her if a young, miniskirted woman in mission control was a distraction. 

"In that time period, all women were swimming in a sea of sexism," Northcutt added in the Texas Monthly profile. "So it wasn't just me, and it wasn't just NASA." 

Working in mission control could be strange, Northcutt said in the 1969 CBC interview. And not because she was a woman surrounded by men.  

"The atmosphere you work in a little bit unreal," she told the CBC interviewer. "You're totally isolated, you're surrounded by machines, there are no windows in the buildings where you work, the lighting is always the same. You lose all track of time.

"You think in terms of ground elapsed time, and that becomes the only reality."

Poppy Northcutt participates in the American Experience 'Chasing The Moon' press conference during the PBS presentation at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour on Feb. 2, 2019, in Pasadena, Calif. (Willy Sanjuan/Invision/Associated Press)