Fifty years ago, Apollo 11 was hurtling along on its mission to deposit two white guys on the Moon. By the time the Apollo program was wound down, 12 people had walked on the Moon, and 24 had been in orbit around the Moon. (Only 6 got to drive a lunar rover.) They were all white guys. Since then, no one has been further than a Low Earth Orbit.

The Apollo 11 crew (Image credit: NASA)

The whiteness of the Apollo program was a problem. In 1968 the Civil Rights Movement was at its height, protesting against discrimination against people of colour; Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in April 1968. The Space Race was largely the concern of white America; people of colour protested that the money would have been better spent on improving their lives (a criticism that NASA would take on board for the future). They weren’t particularly interested in watching white guys land on the Moon.

Of course, the astronauts are only the tip of the Apollo iceberg – an immense team of people worked behind the scenes to get them into space. The majority of that immense team was made up of white men, but there were some very important exceptions, who are more well known today than they were at the time.

JoAnn Morgan during the Apollo 11 launch

JoAnn Morgan was the only woman in the Control Room during the Apollo 11 launch, as an instrumentation controller. She had worked on all of the previous Apollo launches, but this was the first time she had been allowed  to sit at the console during the liftoff phase. She was in charge of the guidance computers at the Central Instrumentation Facility, the lightning-detection and fire-detection systems at the launchpad and the operational communications and television systems. Part of her role was to monitor any interference on the radio frequency used to communicate with the spacecraft; the Russians had tried to interfere with signals during Apollo 8, 9 and 10.

The 2016 movie Hidden Figures (which is based on a book of the same name) shared the story of three Black female mathematicians – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson – who worked at NASA when a ‘computer’ still meant a person carrying out mathematical calculations. These women initially worked in segregated conditions, kept apart from their white female colleagues who were doing the same job. NASA has just renamed the street in front of its HQ as Hidden Figures Way, in their honour.

Katherine Johnson at NASA Langley Research Center in 1962
(Image credit: NASA)

Katherine Johnson calculated trajectories, launch windows and emergency return paths for Project Mercury spaceflights, including those of astronauts Alan Shepard (the first American in space) and John Glenn (the first American in orbit), and rendezvous paths for the Apollo lunar lander and command module. Her calculations were essential to the beginning of the Space Shuttle program, and she also worked on plans for a mission to Mars during her 35 years at NASA.

Dorothy Vaughan (Image credit: NASA)

Dorothy Johnson Vaughan became the first African-American woman to supervise a group of staff at NASA’s Langley Research Center, and later headed the programming section of the Analysis and Computation Division. During her 28-year career, she prepared for the introduction of machine computers in the early 1960s by teaching herself and her staff the programming language FORTRAN.

Mary Jackson at NASA Langley (Image credit: NASA)

Mary Jackson worked at the Langley Research Center for most of her career. After taking advanced engineering classes she became NASA’s first Black female engineer in 1958. She went on to become a manager in the NASA Office of Equal Opportunity Programs and of the Affirmative Action Program, influencing the hiring and promotion of women in NASA.

Margaret Hamilton with the Apollo Guidance Computer source code (Image credit: NASA)

Margaret Hamilton was the lead programmer on the Apollo Guidance Computer, leading the team that developed the on-board flight software for the Command and Lunar Modules. In fact, she more-or-less invented software. The initial engineering documents for Apollo didn’t include the word software; it didn’t appear in the budget, either. But by mid-1968, over 400 people were working on Apollo’s software. At the time, that meant punching holes in punch cards, which were fed into the mainframe to run overnight, simulating the Moon landing.

There’s a lovely anecdote in the Wire article, which involves Hamilton’s daughter Lauren. Hamilton was a working mother, and sometimes took Lauren into the office with her. One day Lauren was playing with the Apollo computer simulator, and it crashed when she ran a pre-launch program during in-flight operations. Hamilton raised this with her superiors, who told her that trained astronauts would never make that mistake, and so no fix was produced. Lo and behold, Jim Lovell did make the same mistake, during his Apollo 8 mission, wiping all the navigational data from the computer. Hamilton and her MIT team had to come up with a quick fix, and upload new navigational data, so that the astronauts could find their way home!

Rope memory from the Apollo Guidance Computer

Interestingly, the software Hamilton team produced had to be hard coded into the Apollo computer. Woven rope memory was the only data storage technology of the time that was light enough to send into space, but could also withstand the rigours of space travel. It was called, somewhat unkindly, Little Old Lady (LOL) memory, because it was quite literally woven by hand by experienced seamstresses. Each completed section had to be perfect, and was tested against the punch card/mainframe version before being signed off.

Buzz Aldrin’s Apollo 11 spacesuit (Image credit: NASA)

The woven rope memory weavers weren’t the only skilled craftswomen essential to the Apollo program. Each spacesuit was hand built by seamstresses, using state-of-the-art materials and engineering techniques. Their work was extraordinarily precise, as a stitching error as small as 1/32 inch could mean the suit was rejected. The spacesuits were produced by the International Latex Corporation—a company better known for making Playtex girdles and bras.

NASA’s Artemis mission

It’s an acknowledged fact that in its early days NASA had a diversity problem. It didn’t select any female astronaut candidates until 1978; Sally Ride was the first American woman in space, in 1983. It’s worth noting that the Soviet space program put the first woman in space – Valentina Tereshkova – in 1963. They also sent the second – Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. Savitskaya went on to become the first woman to go to space twice, and the first woman to perform a spacewalk.

NASA selected its first African-American astronaut candidate in 1961, but Ed Dwight resigned in 1966 due to racial discrimination. The first African American astronaut was therefore Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., although unfortunately he never made it into space. He was killed in a flight training accident in December 1967. The first African American in space was Guion Stewart Bluford Jr., who flew four space shuttle missions in the 80s and 90s. (The honour of being the first person of African descent in space goes to Afro-Cuban Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, however, who joined the Intercosmos program and flew as a cosmonaut in 1980.)

Seeing Sally Ride and Guion Bluford launched into space inspired Mae Carol Jemison to apply to become an astronaut, and she later became the first Black woman in space, on a space shuttle mission in 1992.

If NASA’s 2024 Moon mission (Artemis) takes place, there will be a seat on the flight reserved for a woman. Will one small step for a woman become a giant leap forward for humankind?