She’s the lady who put a man on the moon.
In a sea of male faces and black ties at the historic launch of Apollo 11, a lone woman can be seen at launch control watching history unfold: 28-year-old engineer JoAnn Morgan.
“I hope that photos like the ones I’m in don’t exist anymore,” Morgan, 78, told NASA this week.
On the 50th anniversary of the mission, Morgan has become a cult-like figure for her pioneering role in a profession where women were so unwelcome, female bathrooms at launch control didn’t exist.
As a senior engineer and instrumentation controller, Morgan had the crucial job of monitoring the sensors on the Apollo 11 rocket.
But in spite of her immense talent as the first female engineer at Cape Canaveral, Morgan encountered daily sexism and, at times, isolation.
A security guard would have to clear-out the male bathroom so she could use it — and men would make lewd phone calls to her station.
“I had a sense of loneliness in a way, but on the other side of that coin, I wanted to do the best job I could,” she said.
“I never let myself feel like an object,” Morgan recounted to CNN. “I was not going to be an object. I just had too much fearlessness in me to let that be any kind of deterrent.”
As a child, Morgan loved science and chemistry when her father uprooted the family from Alabama and planted them in Florida where rockets blasted off across the river from her high school.
After deciding space was the only profession for her, Morgan worked tirelessly, interning with the army at age just 17 before landing a gig with a then-little agency called the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“How did I get there? I had been working hard for 10 years,” Morgan told Florida public radio WMFE on Monday.
She credits the support of her mentors, including Dr. Wernher von Braun — the chief architect of the NASA Apollo 11 Saturn V rocket — with spotting her potential and fighting for her to have a seat at the table.
“All of my mentors were men,” said Morgan. “That’s just a plain fact and that needs to be acknowledged.”
Her director battled NASA’s chiefs for her to be at launch control at launch and she was slowly accepted into the team.
“They did not have women in there at lift-off,” Morgan said. “And my director said, ‘I want JoAnn at the console. She’s my best communicator. She’s the one.’”
“It was very validating. It absolutely made my career.”
After the Apollo 11 launch, Morgan became the first female senior executive at the Kennedy Space Center and has been credited as a mentor of many women, and men, across her four-decade career at NASA.
“They didn’t really seem to have the awareness that a woman could have the same amount, if not a greater passion for exploration than men,” she told CBS.
To this day, Morgan is one of the most decorated women at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.
She retired from NASA in 2003 but remains heavily involved in encouraging women to enter engineering — sponsoring scholarships at several high schools.
“Even though I’m almost 80 years old, I’m not giving up,” she says.
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