The only woman in the control room of the Apollo 11 launch

  • by

JoAnn Morgan made history in 1969. She saw first-hand the Apollo 11 take off from the control panel at the Kennedy Space Center.
In the spring of 1958, Morgan just graduated from high school in Florida. Looking for an internship in the summer, she saw the announcement to recruit students to work at the laboratory of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency.

That was when the US Aerospace Agency (NASA) was not established, but the Soviet Union just launched Sputnik 1, the US had to find a way to catch up.

The army was rushing to test missile systems capable of pushing satellites into orbit, & were short on staff. Morgan applied and was hired.

“It was amazing,” Morgan recalls her feelings.

Witness a historic moment

In October 1958, NASA was born, took over the rocket launch project and Morgan became one of the first female employees of this agency.

Within a few years, she graduated from the University of Florida with a BA in mathematics, certified by NASA as a measurement and equipment engineer. She started working on Mercury and Gemini programs.

On July 16, 1969, Morgan was assigned to control the launch of Apollo 11 from the control room located at the Kennedy Space Center. She was the only woman in this particular room.

The Apollo 11 launch control room, Morgan sat in the position marked by the red arrow. Photo: NASA.

 

Claire Reilly, Cnet’s podcast host, chatted with Morgan, getting to know how she felt from an intern to a senior leader at the Kennedy Space Center and witnessed one of the most memorable moments of the 20th century.

“Space missions are the toughest field of work in the world,” she said. “A takeoff is a controlled explosion. Landing is a controlled collision. Millions of things have to go perfectly. That’s why rehearsals are so important.”

The woman pioneering in the field of the universe

Morgan spoke openly with Claire Reilly over the phone from her Florida home. At the beginning of the story, her recollection goes back to the beginning of the career, the difficulties she initially went through, and over 40 years of work in the aerospace industry.

Born on December 4, 1940, in a family of 4 children, JoAnn Hardin’s father (JoAnn Morgan’s pre-married name) was a pilot serving in the US Air Force. After World War II, he worked for the military’s missile development program.

Perhaps Morgan inherited the love of the sky from her father.

JoAnn Morgan (right) participated in the Women’s History Month event at the Kennedy Space Center in March 2018. Photo: NASA.

 

Despite having excellent grades and undergoing military internships, the college-majoring counselor maintained that Morgan couldn’t study engineering because “there are no women in engineering school”.

She suffered from sexist gossip from her co-workers, having to walk to a separate building every time she needed to use the bathroom, as there were no female bathrooms in the work area.

Morgan has worked at NASA for more than four decades, overseeing everything from lunar landings to Mars missions, eventually becoming the first woman to hold the position of deputy director of the Kennedy Space Center. For her dedication, she was awarded the Medal of Leadership Excellence by NASA twice and received the Medal of Excellence 4 times.

She retired in 2003 after going through many key leadership positions that few women have in the aerospace agency.

Conversation between Claire Reilly and Morgan is part of a new podcast series of Cnet called Making Space: The Female Frontier. This is a series about pioneering women involved in space missions.