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The Only Woman in the Room at Apollo 11's Historic Moon Launch

Among hundreds of men, trailblazing NASA Engineer JoAnn Morgan was the sole woman present in the locked control room.

A famous photo shows the control room at Kennedy Space Center on the day of the historic Apollo 11 launch packed with hundreds of men in white shirts and skinny black ties — and, among them, a single woman sits at a console. As Apollo 11 began its flight to the moon on July 16, 1969, 28-year-old instrumentation controller JoAnn Hardin Morgan became the first woman ever permitted in the launch firing room, which is locked down in advance of a space flight. Morgan, who was the first female engineer at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, would go on to have a 40-year-long career at NASA. While she encountered challenges along the way, including being "the only woman there for a long time" and spending the first 15 years working "in a building were there wasn't a ladies rest room," Morgan says that "I had such a passion that overrode anything else, the lonely moments, the little bits of negative. They were like a mosquito bite. You just swat it and push on."

Born in Huntsville, Alabama in 1940, Morgan was inspired to pursue a career in space exploration when she saw the takeoff of Explorer-1, the first satellite launched by the United States. "As a high-school kid who liked math and science, I thought, 'This is going to change the world I’m living in,'" she recalls. Her space career began with an internship at age 17 with the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. After earning a bachelor's degree in mathematics at University of Florida, she went to work at Kennedy Space Center as an aerospace engineer in 1963.

While Morgan had worked on the all of the previous Apollo launches as a junior controller, she had never been allowed in the firing room during the liftoff phase. Shortly before the Apollo 11 launch, she received a promotion to senior controller and her boss wanted her to be on the console for the launch. As she later learned and recounted in an interview: "My immediate supervisor had spoken with Karl Sendler, the director of information systems... and said, 'I want to put JoAnn on console for liftoff. She’s my best communicator. I get clear information about how things are going. She’s also very disciplined.'"

In her role as instrumentation controller for the launch, Morgan was responsible for monitoring guidance computers at the Central Instrumentation Facility and the lightning and fire detection systems at the launchpad. She also had to monitor the command carrier for interference from ships or submarines trying to block commands from flight control or send commands to Apollo 11. Morgan recalls that this was of particular concern as the Soviet Union had tried to interfere with command transfers during previous Apollo missions using an offshore trawler and submarine. Fortunately, the Apollo 11 mission was a stunning success with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin successfully landing the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle on the moon in a feat broadcast to millions of people worldwide.

Following Apollo, Morgan worked on a variety of projects at NASA including developing algorithms for a Mars mission trajectory. She also received a Sloan Fellowship, which allowed her to earn a master's degree in preparation for a management role at NASA. She was made the Chief of the Computer Services Division in 1979, becoming the first female senior executive at Kennedy Space Center. While her career in NASA lasted over 40 years, she still thinks back to that groundbreaking day in Firing Room No. 1 and the historic moon landing that came after: "[After the launch] my job was done, and there was nothing I could do to contribute to the activity of the lunar module going down on the moon. So I got to enjoy watching it," she reflects. "[My husband and I] got a bottle of champagne, and turned the TV on. After we watched the landing, my husband reached over and said, 'Hon, you’re gonna be in the history books.'"

JoAnn Morgan in Firing Room No. 1 at the Kennedy Space Center during the Apollo 11 launch on July 16,1969.

Books About The Pioneering Women of NASA

Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing

Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing

Written by: Dean Robbins
Illustrated by: Lucy Knisley
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

Margaret Hamilton loved numbers, and to her, the best part of math was when it could solve a problem in the real world! Her love of math introduced her to computers, and then to a job at NASA, where they were planning a mission to the moon — and computers were going to be a part of it. Hamilton hand-wrote the code for the Apollo missions, and when a last-minute problem cropped up as Apollo 11 prepared for a lunar landing, it was Hamilton's forward-thinking code that saved the day! This lively look at a computer pioneer is a great way to show young readers that math really can take you to the stars.

Mae Among The Stars

Mae Among The Stars

Written by: Roda Ahmed
Illustrated by: Stasia Burrington
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

Mae Jemison famously became the first black woman in space on the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992 but years before that historic journey, she was a little girl who dreamed of dancing in space. Her mother told her, "If you believe it, and work hard for it, anything is possible." Little Mae's curiosity, intelligence, and determination, matched with her parents' encouraging words, paved the way for her incredible success at NASA. This inspirational introduction to a trailblazing astronaut will encourage children to reach for the stars and never give up on their dreams.

You Should Meet: Katherine Johnson

You Should Meet: Katherine Johnson

Written by: Thea Feldman
Illustrated by: Alyssa Petersen
Recommended Age: 6 - 8

She's been called one of the greatest American minds of all time, and when NASA first started using computers to calculate launch trajectories, they only trusted them after she double-checked the math! Katherine Johnson broke both gender and racial boundaries when she started working for NASA in the 1950s as a human computer, performing the complex calculations necessary to launch rockets, satellites, and eventually, the Apollo 11 moon mission. New chapter book readers who are fans of the hit movie Hidden Figures will be excited to read their very own book about Johnson.

Galaxy Girls: 50 Amazing Stories of Women in Space

Galaxy Girls: 50 Amazing Stories of Women in Space

Written by: Libby Jackson
Recommended Age: 7 - 12

This gorgeously illustrated collected biography honors inspirational women who helped fuel some of the greatest achievements in space exploration from the nineteenth century to today! Galaxy Girls pays tribute to fifty pioneering women past and present, from mathematicians to engineers to test pilots to astronauts. Each capsule biography is paired with striking full-page original artwork from the students of the London College of Communication. Perfect for inspiring the space leaders of tomorrow, this stunning book gives this band of heroic sisters and their remarkable and often little known scientific achievements long overdue recognition.

Sally Ride

A Photobiography of America's Pioneering Woman in Space

Sally Ride

A Photobiography of America's Pioneering Woman in Space

Written by: Tam O'Shaughnessy
Recommended Age: 9 - 12

This photobiography of the first American woman in space gives a unique peek at the life of Sally Ride! Ride was a competitive tennis player, a book lover, and — believe it or not — an underachiever (at least according to her high school classmates.) After she made history as an astronaut, she also served as an advocate for space exploration and girls and women in science. This book written by Ride's partner Tam O'Shaughnessy, which is full of both personal and media photographs and illuminating and intimate anecdotes, provides a revealing look at this pioneer of space travel.

Women In Space: 23 Stories of First Flights, Scientific Missions, and Gravity-Breaking Adventures

Women In Space: 23 Stories of First Flights, Scientific Missions, and Gravity-Breaking Adventures

Written by: Karen Bush Gibson
Recommended Age: 12 and up

There are few figures as inspiring as an astronaut: not only are they daring adventurers, they're also intelligent, dedicated scientists! In this book from the Women of Action series, kids will read about trailblazing women from ten different countries who dreamed of traveling to space. Including important figures like the Mercury 13, Valentina Tereshkova, Sally Ride, Mae Jemison, Chiaki Mukai, Kalpana Chawla, and many more, this book shares the obstacles they faced, the wonders they saw, and the influence they've made on the world. For any science-lover or would-be space traveler, this book is full of inspiration.

Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream

Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream

Written by: Tanya Lee Stone
Recommended Age: 10 - 14

In 1958 America, as the quest for space was just beginning, NASA had a rule that an astronaut had to have military pilot experience — and of course, the military only accepted men in those roles. But some people wondered if some of the equally daring women pilots of the day belonged on the first space missions. This book tells the little-known story of the Mercury 13 women, who underwent astronaut testing and training decades before the first American woman would go to space. For kids who have grown up with both male and female astronauts, reading about the Mercury 13 and their quest for the stars will shed new light on how far we've come — and how far we have to go.

Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America's First Female Rocket Scientist

Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America's First Female Rocket Scientist

Written by: George D. Morgan
Recommended Age: Adults

As a teenager in the late 1930s, Mary Sherman Morgan dreamed of a career in chemistry at a time when most of her peers dreamed of husbands and children. When top scientists like Wernher von Braun could not find solutions to the repeated failures of the American space program’s rockets, the job was given to North American Aviation — and to Morgan, one of the company's rare women scientists but already known by management as a tremendously talented engineer. The formula she developed for rocket fuel launched Explorer 1 into the stratosphere and beyond. Morgan’s son tells the story of the little-known woman whose work was critical to the launch of America’s first satellite.

Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars

Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars

Written by: Nathalia Holt
Recommended Age: Adults

When the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, founded in the 1940s, needed clever mathematicians for calculations, they recruited a group of young women whose penciled equations about velocities and plot trajectories would propel the science of space exploration. Over two decades, these dedicated women would transform rocket design, allow the creation of the first American satellites, and eventually, make it possible to explore our solar system — and yet few people know their story. Nathalia Holt tells the story of these groundbreaking "human computers" who broke new ground for both women and science in a compelling and exciting way. Inspiring and thought-provoking, this book will change the way you look at the history of space travel — as well as its future.

Hidden Figures

The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

Hidden Figures

The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

Written by: Margot Lee Shetterly
Recommended Age: Adults

When America set its sights on the moon, launch calculations had to be done by pencils and slide rules in the hands of "human computers" — and among them was a group of incredibly gifted African-American women, without whom space travel would have stayed a dream. This book follows the stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, whose contributions have until recently been largely neglected in the history books but whose work not only helped humankind reach the moon, but also changed the history of black woman in science. This inspiring book, which kicked off a new cultural appreciation for these groundbreaking women, is a must-read title for anyone interested in women's history.

LEGO Women of NASA Building Kit

LEGO Women of NASA Building Kit

Manufacturer: LEGO
Recommended Age: 10 and up

Build a tribute to some of the ground-breaking women who took American into space with this much-anticipated set from LEGO Ideas! This fan-designed set features astronomer Nancy Grace Roman; computer scientist Margaret Hamilton; astronaut and physicist Sally Ride; and astronaut, physician and engineer Mae Jemison, each as part of a vignette depicting their role with NASA. It's a wonderful way to inspire the women in STEM of future generations! Young fans of these trailblazers will enjoy reading about them in the companion early reader, LEGO Women of NASA: Space Heroes.

LEGO Ideas NASA Apollo Saturn V

LEGO Ideas NASA Apollo Saturn V

Manufacturer: LEGO
Recommended Age: 14 and up

Enjoy a building challenge — and a tribute to NASA's Moon missions — with this massive three-foot LEGO model of the NASA Apollo Saturn V rocket! At 1,969 pieces, this set provides a fun building challenge packed with authentic details: it features 3 removable rocket stages, including the S-IVB third stage with the lunar lander and lunar orbiter. With The set includes 3 stands to display the model horizontally, 3 new astronaut micro figures for role-play recreations of the Moon landings, and a booklet about the manned Apollo missions.

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