One of the most fascinating pictures from the Apollo 11 lunar mission wasn’t taken in space but back on Earth.
Photographers allowed inside Launch Control at Kennedy Space Center in Florida captured shots of rows of NASA men in white shirts, dark jackets and skinny ties. A few are wearing white lab coats, many have a row of pens in their top pockets and all of them are watching with rapt attention the rocket taking off from a nearby launchpad.
But look closer and you can make out they’re not all male engineers and scientists. In the middle of one row is an attractive young woman with bobbed dark hair, wearing a very un-NASA navy blue Lacoste dress.
That woman was 28-year-old JoAnn Morgan, an instrumentation controller for the mission whose presence there was in its own way almost as historic as the Moon landing that would follow four days later.
JoAnn Morgan (circled) was the only woman working in the firing room at Kennedy Space Center in 1969
JoAnn was the only woman permitted to be working in the control room – known as a ‘firing room’ because the staff there oversee the craft being fired into space – when they were locked inside half an hour before lift-off, to prevent any distractions. It was her and nearly 500 men.
Her role as instrumentation controller was to monitor myriad systems including the rocket guidance computers and the lightning and fire detection systems at the launchpad, and to ensure that nearby ships and submarines weren’t hijacking the frequencies used to communicate with the astronauts. (The Russians tried this during the launch of Apollo 8.)
As a woman, she needed to have special permission to be there.
In those days, NASA saw women only in a strictly supporting role – like the astronauts’ wives keeping the home fires burning in the Florida neighbourhood where they all lived.
JoAnn’s mere presence in the firing room became such a controversial issue that it went right up to the Kennedy Space Center’s director, Dr Kurt Debus, to decide.
‘My director of information systems called me and said, “You’re our best communicator. We’re going to have you on the console,”’ JoAnn recalled. ‘But later I found out he had to convince Dr Debus that it was going to be OK.’
JoAnn’s immediate boss, Karl Sendler, had reservations about locking a young woman in with so many male colleagues – prudishness that astonished JoAnn.
‘Why would anybody be concerned about me being locked in with a bunch of men, and we’re all on TV anyway?’ she has said. ‘We were being monitored by the world.’
Fortunately, Dr Debus approved the request. But some weren’t happy about it, and JoAnn began to receive occasional obscene phone calls – obviously from colleagues at NASA as they came through on an internal phone – as she sat at her console.
Not that she didn’t have every right to be there. She was no eleventh-hour concession to women’s liberation but had earned her place.
JoAnn, pictured in the 1990s, was, she notes wistfully, the agency’s only woman engineer ‘for a long time’
The daughter of a Second World War pilot, she had been a precocious child who preferred chemistry sets to dolls, once blowing up the family patio and cracking the concrete with one of her experiments.
In 1958, aged 17, she was selected to work as an intern at the US Army Ballistic Missile Agency. She was then assigned to be an engineer’s aide at the missile firing lab at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. And after finishing a mathematics degree, JoAnn joined NASA full time.
She was, she notes wistfully, the agency’s only woman engineer ‘for a long time’.
As her sister Jean said, ‘She was very, very smart. She had it all – the beauty and the brains.’ She also had mental toughness, which proved essential in weathering the sexism at NASA.
JoAnn, now 78, retired in 2003 having risen to the heights where she was acting deputy director of Kennedy Space Center for a time.
But she’s said that in the beginning she was ‘immersed in a man’s world where everybody around me were men’. Many of them clearly resented her presence.
On her first day at Cape Canaveral’s launch site 34, used for NASA’s Saturn rockets, the test supervisor came and ‘literally hit me on the back. He said, “We don’t have women here.” I thought, “Uh, oh”.’
After we watched the landing, my husband reached over and said, “Hon, you’re gonna be in the history books.”
Many of the buildings where she worked didn’t even have ladies’ lavatories. She had to either use the men’s or leave the building and trudge across the NASA site. During tests, considerate security guards would clear out the men’s loos for her.
She admits she ‘definitely had some lonely moments’ as a NASA woman engineer, whether it was the suspicion she had been overlooked for promotion or the casual day-to-day misogyny of male staff who felt they could say what they liked.
Her husband Larry, a high school bandmaster, was a rock for her during this time. ‘He said to me, “You have to rise above that, JoAnn. You’re doing something important.”’
They were both appalled, however, by one particular incident during the Moon mission.
A member of one of the TV crews providing coverage of the firing room approached JoAnn. ‘He said, “I have to tell you something. When somebody brings paperwork to you and they want you to lean over your console to sign it, make them come around to you. Don’t get up. When you get up, the TV techs get enquiries to zoom in on your butt.” I was horrified. My husband was too.’
JoAnn’s part in Apollo 11 was done by the time the lunar module was ready to land on the Moon. She watched it, like many millions around the world, on TV. She and her husband spent the day out fishing.
‘We came in, got a bottle of champagne, and turned the TV on,’ she said. ‘After we watched the landing, my husband reached over and said, “Hon, you’re gonna be in the history books.”’
As the astronauts began their journey home, Ray Connolly was struck by a dreadful thought… How on Earth will they get back?
BY RAY CONNOLLY
The apparent coolness of Neil Armstrong while talking to Mission Control, as he piloted the lunar module over the Moon’s desert-like Sea of Tranquility, was extraordinary. His heart rate had soared above 150 beats a minute, but viewers around the world watching the flickering black-and-white television pictures of the very first Moon landing in July 1969 would never have known it.
He could have been any pilot approaching a landing. But, searching desperately for a boulder-free place to touch down, it was the tensest moment of the voyage. Hit a rock and the lunar module might have toppled over, leaving the expedition a disaster and Armstrong and his co-pilot Buzz Aldrin dead – or abandoned with no hope of rescue.
But no rock was hit, and finally Armstrong and Aldrin touched down. They’d done it. They’d become the first men on the Moon.
Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. While Ray Connolly watched the Moon landing, he was left thinking about how Buzz and Neil would find their way back to Earth
Television showed the landing repeatedly that day, but it was only that night, when standing in the garden and staring up into the sky, I began to feel any emotion other than awe. As the Moon glistened icily between clouds, I felt afraid for them. While getting up there had been one thing, getting home again seemed a jolly sight more difficult.
After around 22 hours on the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin had blasted back up into the sky, and as I stood there staring up, they were attempting to rendezvous with the command module Columbia, piloted by Michael Collins. At which point, all being well, the three of them would set off back to Earth.
But what if all didn’t go well? What if the moonwalkers missed docking with the mothership? What if there was a computer malfunction? If their sat-nav got it wrong, could they override it and steer themselves to safety or would they be destined to fly on and on into the emptiness of the universe until the end of time?
The crew of Apollo 11 were brave beyond brave, but I wondered if at any point they’d asked themselves what they were doing there. Did they question President Kennedy’s promise to Congress in 1961 that the US would put an American on the Moon by the end of the 1960s? As a boast it was all part of the Cold War, which had become a space race when the Soviet Union had beaten the US by putting the first satellite, and then the first man, into orbit. America had to go one better, no matter what the cost – such as the lives of the three Americans who had died in an Apollo rehearsal two years earlier.
Neil and Buzz raise the American flag. Another 10 men have now followed Armstrong and Aldrin in walking on the Moon. But none will be remembered like those pioneers of 50 years ago
Space travel is a risky business. When, in the years before any of this happened, we’d been enjoying Star Trek on TV, we’d never thought about the kind of power needed to thrust a spacecraft through the stratosphere, with the astronauts effectively sitting on a bomb waiting for it to explode and give them a push off the edge of the world. Nor had we imagined the horror of being lost in space.
These were the thoughts in my mind as the Apollo mission began its journey home, back to a world where two weeks earlier the Rolling Stones had given a free concert in Hyde Park, and where the weekend before Mary Jo Kopechne had drowned when Senator Ted Kennedy drove a car off a bridge in Massachusetts.
Like every year, 1969 was a summer that bristled with headlines – the reopening of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the murder of Sharon Tate, Concorde’s maiden flight and Bob Dylan’s appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival of Music. But as dreadful or exhilarating as these events were, they were all part and parcel of life and death on Earth. That first trip to the Moon was an event of a different order completely.
Another 10 men have now followed Armstrong and Aldrin in walking on the Moon. But none will be remembered like those pioneers of 50 years ago.
Ray Connolly’s novella Sorry Boys, You Failed The Audition is now on sale through Amazon.
THE HOAX THEORY RUMBLES ON
BY NICOLE LAMPERT FOR WEEKEND MAGAZINE
The Moon landing might have been watched by millions, but that hasn’t stopped conspiracy theorists claiming the whole thing was an elaborate hoax.
On Monday a new documentary on the Yesterday channel explores these theories, talking to those behind them as well as experts who are easily able to debunk them.
‘People often distrust authorities and they will say there is some kind of plot to keep the information from us,’ says Robert Massey, deputy executive director of the Royal Astronomical Society, who is on hand to discredit the theories.
‘They say going to the Moon at the height of the Cold War was worth fabricating for the propaganda value, and that NASA has kept one of the biggest-ever secrets.’
Some believe the three astronauts exited the spacecraft before it took off. Astronauts Neil A. Armstrong (front) and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. walk across the mobile launcher to enter their Apollo 11 spacecraft on July 16, 1969
Featured in the documentary is Bill Kaysing, a former US Navy officer who worked for Rocketdyne, a company that made space rockets, and it was his 1976 book We Never Went To The Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle that started off the conspiracy mania.
Bill, who died in 2005, claimed NASA never had the technical knowledge to send men to the Moon, so they perpetrated an elaborate hoax to make the world think they had.
‘I really believe they weren’t in the command capsule at launch,’ he said of the three astronauts. ‘They did a bit of magic there. They went up the elevator but then they came down the elevator.’
His work spawned a slew of publications by conspiracy theorists, and 50 years on they refuse to go away.
The show looks at some of the boldest claims – including that the footage on the Moon was filmed in a Hollywood studio or the desert, the astronauts couldn’t have worked their cameras because their gloves were too big and that there are no stars in the photos – and attempts to debunk them.
The Russians have never attempted to question the Moon landings, while Chinese and Japanese satellites have shown evidence of the debris left on the surface.
‘Any form of fraud by either party would have been exposed very quickly,’ says former NASA space system engineer Pat Norris.
It’s a story that’s unlikely to go away; and there may be new chapters. ‘There will be men and women on Mars soon,’ says Robert Massey. ‘I just hope we don’t see the same pattern of conspiracy theorists surfacing.’
Moon Landings: World’s Greatest Hoax?, Monday, 8pm, Yesterday.