The Women Who Brought Us Apollo 11
This story is part of our celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. View the rest of our special coverage here.
In 1969, the world watched as Neil Armstrong marked his historic achievement with the words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” His now-famous transmission was heard around the globe thanks to NASA’s Deep Space Network, which made communication from outer space possible.
That network was built by a woman named Susan Finley. She was part of an all-female team of coders whose work was integral to the success of the Apollo 11 mission, but went largely unheralded. Science writer Nathalia Holt, who has written a book about Finley and her all-female team of coders, says this unique group of women was brought together by the efforts of a woman named Macy Roberts.
“Macy Roberts was made supervisor of this unique group in 1942 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory,” Holt says. “They were known as computers — before all of the devices we have today it was humans that were actually hired to do the calculations for laboratories. And so Macy Roberts decided that she wanted to make it an all-female group because she worried that, if she hired a man, they just wouldn’t listen to her because she was a female.”
This all-female department played a crucial role in the early NASA lunar missions.
“We had six failures of these Ranger spacecraft before we finally were able to land a spacecraft on the moon,” Holt says. “And [that success] was the work of these women — they were in mission control, they were plotting the trajectories, they were a critical part of making this happen.”
Finley was one of the women in this group and she spent a long time working on the Deep Space Network — a communication system that made Neil Armstrong’s famous transmission back to Earth possible.
Another woman in the group, Margaret Hamilton, wrote the code that actually made the lunar landing possible.
“Just three minutes before the eagle is going to land, Buzz Aldrin who was following his checklist, turns on the rendezvous radar, and when this happens, the CPU on the computer just becomes overloaded,” Holt says. “It’s important to remember here how little memory this computer had compared to the systems we have today. … So the alarm goes off because the computer is just having trouble doing so many different functions. … And so they and Mission Control have to make a very difficult decision: Are they going to abort? Or are they going to trust the software to get them through this? And listening to all of this, at MIT, is a woman named Margaret Hamilton and she’s responsible for the Apollo on-board flight software. She’s director of the software engineering division at MIT’s instrumentation lab and it is actually her code that saves the day — it’s able to override all of the other functions and make landing the priority.”
Listen to the crucial moments when Apollo 11 was landing below. Thanks to Margaret Hamilton’s code, the crew was able to land smoothly when a 1201 error occurred.
The network this group of women worked on is still used today for all of NASA’s space communication, and Holt says Finley is still employed at NASA — the organization’s longest-serving female employee.
The way women like Finley, Hamilton and Roberts are treated at NASA has changed over the years, says Holt, but there is still work to be done to attract more women to scientific and engineering fields.
“They had wonderful relationships with their male colleagues, even though for a long time they were paid less and were in a position of computer instead of being called engineers. But despite that, they had these wonderful working relationships with the men and they really loved their careers at NASA,” Holt says. “[Now] we have a very exciting thing that’s happened this year, where half of the 2016 astronaut class is women. So women today are very important of course at NASA. But we can do more. Only 23 percent of scientists and engineers in our space agency are women.”
Nathalia Holt is a microbiologist and author of Cured: The People Who Defeated HIV and the forthcoming Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us from Missiles to the Moon to Mars. She’s based in Boston, Massachusetts.
IRA FLATOW: This week marks the 47th anniversary of the first landing on the moon and the tense last few moments to the surface. As you can hear in this exchange between Neil Armstrong and Mission Control, the team received an unexpected 1201 alarm from the Eagle’s computer.
-Roger. Understand. Go for landing. 3,000 feet.
-Program alarm 1201.
-1201 alarm. We’re go. Same type. We’re go.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. In that dramatic last few seconds, Neil Armstrong guided his Lander to the surface of the moon. And while Neil’s skills as a pilot helped safely navigate the final last few feet of the descent, if it weren’t for the remarkable skills of a group of women coders working behind the scenes at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, we might never have heard Neil Armstrong say those famous “one small step for man” line on the moon.
Joining me to talk about these women is my guest, Nathalia Holt. She’s author of the new book Rise of the Rocket Girls. The Women Who Propelled Us From Missiles to the Moon to Mars.
Nathalia, welcome to Science Friday.
NATHALIA HOLT: Thank you so much.
IRA FLATOW: Now, we heard in the audio there was a mention of 1201 alarm. What was happening there?
NATHALIA HOLT: This is happening just three minutes before the Eagle is going to land, and Buzz Aldrin, who is following his checklist, turns on the Rendezvous Radar, and when this happens, the CPU on the computer just becomes overloaded.
It’s important to remember here how little memory this computer had compared to the systems we have today. Our cell phones have millions of times more memory than this computer did.
And so the alarm goes off, because the computer is just having trouble doing so many different functions. And when the astronauts hear this alarm, they don’t know what a 1201 or a 1202 alarm refers to.
And so they and Mission Control have to make a very difficult decision. Are they going to abort or are they going to trust the software to get them through this?
And listening to all of this at MIT is a woman named Margaret Hamilton. And she’s responsible for the Apollo onboard flight software. She’s Director of the Software Engineering Division at MIT’s Instrumentation Lab. And it is actually her code that saves the day. It’s able to override all of the other functions and make landing the priority.
IRA FLATOW: But Neil has to take over manual control and land it, correct?
NATHALIA HOLT: It’s still the software that has to ultimately do the landing. So it’s doing it together– man and machine, working as one to land the Eagle.
IRA FLATOW: In your book, you talk about a group of women coders who worked at JPL on a lot of NASA projects. How did they get to be all women?
NATHALIA HOLT: They were women because of a very special person named Macy Roberts. She was made supervisor of this unique group in 1942 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And they were known as computers.
So before all of the devices we have today, it was humans that were actually hired to do the calculations for laboratories. And so Macy Roberts decided that she wanted to make it an all-female group, because she worried that if she hired a man, they just wouldn’t listen to her because she was a female.
IRA FLATOW: So she just hired women.
NATHALIA HOLT: Yes.
IRA FLATOW: And one of these women was Susan Finley, and she worked on something called the Deep Space Network, right?
NATHALIA HOLT: Yes. That’s right. Sue Finley has such a long history at NASA. She is still working there today. She’s actually NASA’s longest serving female employee. And she worked on the earliest spacecraft to the moon, the Ranger Series and the Surveyor spacecraft, as well as building the Deep Space Network.
IRA FLATOW: Is it true that she was demoted in her position at NASA because she doesn’t have a degree?
NATHALIA HOLT: Yes, she was. This happened in 2008. And she unfortunately was demoted to a technical position, but she loves her job there. She is very happy with her work. She’s had a very long career there.
IRA FLATOW: I can’t believe it. I mean, she’s worked for decades, but that’s NASA’s policy, I guess. Maybe somebody–
NATHALIA HOLT: It’s hard to understand, yes.
IRA FLATOW: Maybe someone in NASA listening now might reconsider that.
NATHALIA HOLT: I hope so.
IRA FLATOW: Were you surprised when you discovered that the story of this group of women hadn’t been told really yet?
NATHALIA HOLT: I was, because they had such a critical role and especially in these early lunar missions, I think we forget how many failures it took to actually get to the moon.
We had six failures of these Ranger spacecraft before we finally were able to land a spacecraft on the moon. And it was the work of these women. They were in Mission Control. They were plotting the trajectories. They were a critical part of making this happen.
IRA FLATOW: And if it weren’t for these women and the network, we wouldn’t have heard Neil Armstrong’s famous words, right?
NATHALIA HOLT: That’s right. We needed this network of large parabolic antennae in order to be able to receive the signal from space. And we still use that network today for all of our communication.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about how the men viewed these women. Many, if not most of these women, had long careers at NASA and JPL. Do you think that despite the fact that we’ve heard very little about them over the years that they felt respected by their male colleagues there?
NATHALIA HOLT: They did. They had wonderful relationships with their male colleagues, even though for a long time they were paid less and were in a position of computer instead of being called engineers. But despite that, they had these wonderful working relationships with the men. And they really loved their careers at NASA. I think we can be very proud that NASA was hiring women at such an early time, from the 1940s and ’50s, to play this key role in space exploration.
IRA FLATOW: And are the women still as active as they were before in now, the current space missions?
NATHALIA HOLT: Well, we have a very exciting thing that’s happened this year where half of the 2016 astronaut class is women. So women today are very important, of course, at NASA. But still we can do more. Only 23% of scientists and engineers in our space agency are women. So that’s an area where I think we can help inspire and hopefully get more women to join the space program.
IRA FLATOW: Our number is 844-724-8255 if you’d like to talk to Nathalia Holt on Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International.
What kind of response have you received from your book? People happy to hear about these women?
NATHALIA HOLT: Well, I’ve noticed from young people especially that they find these stories very inspiring. It’s wonderful to know that women were such an essential part of our space program from the very beginning. And, of course, for me, the most rewarding part is being able to see the women themselves finally have the recognition they deserve after so many decades.
IRA FLATOW: Why do you think it is, and it seems different from other businesses, why women geeks– geeky programming ladies– are accepted by geeky programming men as equals and not outside?
NATHALIA HOLT: Yes. Well, it used to be, of course, that women were the ones that did most of the computer programming. And unfortunately, that trend has dropped. We see such a decline in the number of women getting degrees in computer programming today. And so it’s important that we make sure we make opportunities available for women to go into these fields.
IRA FLATOW: Do you think that, you know, they talk about coding as another language, and people are suggesting, hey, if you take French or Spanish, why not take computer coding as a language instead? Would you think that’s a good idea for women to do in high school?
NATHALIA HOLT: Absolutely. And what’s great is that we already have some wonderful programs that help encourage women to learn programming early on. There’s Girls Who Code and other wonderful programs that help women learn about languages and learn about computers from a very early age, hopefully even before high school.
IRA FLATOW: Is Susan Finley still active?
NATHALIA HOLT: She is. She is still at the lab. She was a very critical player in Juneau, so our mission to Jupiter. And so she was the one who was able to tell us when that mission was really a success and when the spacecraft went into orbital insertion around the planet.
IRA FLATOW: So does she talk about retirement? You say that she is the longest serving person at NASA.
NATHALIA HOLT: She has no plans of retiring currently. She really loves her work. She’s been there for 58 years, and she’s just been a part of about every NASA mission you can think of.
IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to Barbara. She’s at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, one of our favorite places. Hi, Barbara.
IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.
BARBARA: Oh, I just wanted to say thank you for writing the book. I was given the book by a colleague here at NASA, and he said when he heard this book was being released, he said he had to buy it for Barbara. And it was especially wonderful to me that two of your main characters in the book are– two of the main women– are named Barbara. So that was pretty special to me. And I’ve actually had the chance to exchange emails briefly with Susan Finley.
NATHALIA HOLT: Oh, that’s wonderful.
BARBARA: Yeah. So I came late to NASA in my career. I’m mid-50s now. I’ve worked in industry for a long time, but I do find that women are extremely respected at NASA. And so are older workers. There’s not as much ageism and sexism here as I find in industry in general.
NATHALIA HOLT: That is wonderful to hear.
BARBARA: Yeah. I want to say thank you for writing the book. It really touched my heart.
IRA FLATOW: Barbara, could I ask–
NATHALIA HOLT: Oh, thanks.
IRA FLATOW: –what you do there at Marshall?
BARBARA: I’m a Quality Engineer.
IRA FLATOW: What does that mean?
BARBARA: Well, my doctorate is in Chemical Engineering. I’ve worked in manufacturing for 25 years. And I spend my time in the Safety Mission Assurance Directorate, making sure that all the requirements can be verified, all the hardware is designed and built correctly, that when the hardware is built, it’s going to work as expected and be safe.
IRA FLATOW: You say you came to this late in life. Were you somebody with a pocket protector early on?
BARBARA: Oh, I was a Trekkie from the time it came out. And actually most of the people that work at NASA are lifelong geeks.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
BARBARA: We’re used to hard work. It’s a great to be.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. We’re trying to change the word to Benjie, because we think Benjamin Franklin is more appropriate. Being a science person and an arts person, you know, that’s how a lot of people are these days, right?
BARBARA: Oh, especially in Huntsville. The same parts of the brain do a lot of these things. It’s a wonderful place to be.
IRA FLATOW: So they’re more Benjie. Thank you very much for calling, Barbara.
BARBARA: Yes. There’s, in fact, lots of musicians in the Safety and Mission Assurance world here.
IRA FLATOW: Have them– give our regards to everybody there. Have a great weekend. And thank you too for joining us, Nathalia, and good luck with your book. It’s a great book.
NATHALIA HOLT: Thank you. I appreciate it.
IRA FLATOW: Nathalia Holt, author of the new book, Rise of the Rocket Girls. The Women Who propelled Us From the Missiles to Moon to Mars.
Before we go, here’s one for bird lovers. A new photo gallery on our website breathing some life into the ornithology collection at the Royal Ontario Museum. So see exquisite closeups of tree swallows. We’ve got Black Sickle Bills and Bald Eagle feathers. The photos are at ScienceFriday.com/beautifulbirds.
Speaking of beautiful, BJ Leiderman composed our theme music, and thanks to our production partners at the studios of the City University of New York. Have a great weekend. We’ll see you next week. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.