With seconds left in the countdown, JoAnn Morgan knew there was no turning back.
Oh, we’re really going to do it, she thought to herself. We’re really going. The United States was about to launch three men to the moon, and Morgan, an instrumentation controller at NASA, had a front-row seat: the launch-control room at Kennedy Space Center, where dozens of engineers guided the rocket carrying the Apollo 11 crew toward space.
Morgan worked on the Apollo program as an engineer, checking and testing various ground systems required to prepare the rockets for takeoff. Each time, she had to leave the launch-control room about a half hour before liftoff and watch the launch from somewhere else. This was the 1960s; most of the NASA workforce was male and white, and women were not allowed to be at the controls.
But on launch day, a sweltering Wednesday in July, she was there. She was 28 at the time, and the memory of that day sticks vividly in her mind. She remembers the headset pressed to her ear, transmitting the final moments. She can feel her elbow vibrating against the arm of her chair from the shockwaves that washed over as the Saturn V climbed into the air. She can see the rocket in the window as it disappeared into the atmosphere.
Morgan found out many years later that her supervisor had fought hard to get her into the room. He had told his superiors that he needed her there. Morgan was the best they had.
Three years before the moon landing, Morgan sat down at a console to conduct some tests. She was about to plug in her headset when she felt a hand whack her on the back. “We don’t have women in here,” the man behind her said.
Morgan called the director of her team, Karl Sendler, who had ordered the tests. Sendler was one of the engineers who had come to the United States from Germany with Wernher von Braun, whose Nazi record was hidden from the public after World War II, to help build the Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo crew. He told Morgan to ignore the guy and get to work, so she did. Later that afternoon, Rocco Petrone, the manager of the Apollo program, stopped by. “He sort of gently tapped me on the shoulder and he said, ‘JoAnn, you’re always welcome,’” Morgan told me recently. Her boss, she assumes, had made some calls.
It was difficult for her to feel welcome at Kennedy, though. “It was 100 percent men every place I went,” Morgan said. Many were startled when the engineer “J. Morgan” walked into the room and turned out not to be a man. Most got over the surprise and worked amiably with her. Some didn’t. Morgan made friends with the secretaries and the librarian at the nearby Air Force base, a Filipino woman with a master’s degree, a rarity in her own right. When male employees made crass comments, Morgan confided in the center’s sole female lawyer.
The Florida coast was its own solar system, with Cape Canaveral at its center, and many other women were there. Thousands of workers flocked to the area, bringing their families with them. Their lives, professional and social, gravitated around the space effort. The majority of women at Kennedy and other NASA centers in the 1950s and 1960s worked—or started out—as administrative assistants, typists, and, like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and the other women whose stories were told in Hidden Figures, human computers calculating orbital mechanics.
The paucity of women was more apparent in technical fields such as engineering, where Morgan began her career. She joined the American space effort a decade before the Apollo 11 launch, as an intern right out of high school. NASA didn’t exist yet. Like most high-school kids in central Florida at the time, Morgan liked to go down to the beach at night to watch the Army launch rockets into the sky from nearby Cape Canaveral—they produced a spectacular light show if they blew up. Morgan watched the launch of Explorer 1, the first American satellite to reach space, and she remembers the astonishment she felt, learning that the satellite’s instruments had discovered bands of hazardous radiation curling around Earth. She marveled at the thought of sending something into space that could tell you about the world. “It was like a door opened in my mind,” Morgan said.
At Jacksonville State University, she began studying math and spending summers interning at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, which was absorbed into the nascent NASA. Her supervisor at the agency, Jim White, gave a speech to the engineers. They were to call their new trainee Ms. Hardin—her maiden name—and they would treat her like any other aspiring engineer. “Right away, the first week, somebody said, ‘Oh, can we have the student make coffee?’” Morgan recalled. White gave them another talk after that.
Morgan said her passion for the work provided enough insulation from workplace slights. Still, she tried to inoculate herself against unpleasant encounters. She didn’t ride the elevator alone with male colleagues she knew were likely to say something snarky or sleazy. She avoided climbing stairs while a man followed behind, aware that he was probably ogling her figure. Morgan reported some remarks to her supervisor. “I never knew what people did when I turned in those comments; I never got any feedback,” she said. “But sometimes things stopped.”
The phone calls were the worst. Nameless men would ring Morgan’s line on the console and say things that, to this day, she refuses to repeat. One day, a television operator approached her to ask if she was alright. He had been monitoring the launch-control room on his screen on another floor, and he’d seen Morgan slam the phone down, an “awful” look on her face. Morgan never reported these incidents. For decades, only two people knew about them: her husband, Larry, and that television operator.
To Sendler, Morgan was the most skilled communicator on his team. Morgan remembers the German rocket scientist’s giddy expression when he took her hands in his and told her she’d be in the room for the Apollo 11 launch. Morgan was thrilled; she would no longer be shut out and she’d be working the day shift. (She had never liked the night shifts.) In the tense minutes before liftoff, Morgan monitored streams of information coming from the computer systems and the launchpad, and relayed the data to other engineers until the crew was cleared for flight.
When Apollo 11 was in the sky, Morgan and the other engineers in Cape Canaveral handed off the mission to their colleagues at Mission Control in Houston. Morgan wrapped up her work and packed for a vacation; she and Larry were going to take a boat out on the water. Four days later, they watched the grainy footage of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface at a hotel, with champagne to celebrate.
That’s when it really hit her, Morgan said. The Apollo astronauts had made history, and as the only woman in the launch-control room during liftoff, she had, too. A photo of the Cape Canaveral control room on launch day, with Morgan in a navy dress amid a sea of white shirts and skinny ties, appeared in Life magazine.
Morgan said it wasn’t until the late 1970s that she started to notice she wasn’t alone in meetings anymore. More and more women were receiving technical degrees, and they were coming to NASA. She was delighted, especially as she moved into leadership positions at the agency. She was the supervisor now, and she would make them feel welcome.
There’s a wonderful scene in a recent Apollo 11 documentary comprising almost entirely video and audio excavated from untouched NASA archives. The camera sweeps around the control room. The dozens of engineers, with their pale faces and close-cropped hair and horn-rimmed glasses, blend together. And then there’s Morgan. She wears a light-blue, striped button-down shirt. Her hair is short and curled up at the ends, and her lips are colored pink.
The sight, so incongruous with the rest of the setting, startled me. My body twitched involuntarily in the movie-theater chair. I felt like a time traveler; I wasn’t supposed to be there and shouldn’t make my presence known, but I knew something she didn’t. I wanted so badly to shout at Morgan on the screen, ‘There are going to be others like you!’ Someday, there would be other people in the control room—at NASA, in rocket science and all the other sciences—who were not men, not white, not the stereotypical figure that society had deemed as having the right stuff.
The only woman in the control room eventually learned what I knew, watching her from the future. Morgan worked at NASA for 45 years before retiring in 2003 as a senior executive at Kennedy Space Center. She was there through it all—the Apollo landings, the Voyager missions, the space-shuttle triumphs and tragedies, the first trips to Mars, the delicate construction of the International Space Station. And she saw the staff behind these missions shift. While NASA’s workforce is still mostly male and white, the agency employs more women and people of color than ever before. As in many workplaces, sexual harassment likely remains intractable, but human-resource departments and procedures are in place.
Morgan once said she would like to retire on Mars. She settled for Montana instead. Her summers are spent in the northwestern part of the state, in a house that overlooks a freshwater lake rimmed by snow-topped mountains and trees the color of malachite.
The alpine wilderness provides respite from the hottest months in Florida, where she lives the rest of the year in a beachfront cottage, about an hour’s drive north of Cape Canaveral. Her stays in Montana have grown longer since Larry died in 2006. She likes to go into town for some music, and hike when her leg isn’t bothering her. She grows produce year-round: pineapple, papaya, and pomegranates in Florida; cherries, strawberries, raspberries, apples, and pears in Montana. Though she’s lived in Florida for decades, she has never lost the soothing lilt of her native Huntsville, Alabama.
The famous picture from the control room has followed her. Morgan said she has many others like it, taken at meetings and medal ceremonies. She doesn’t want to see any more, whether she’s in them or not.
“My wish would be, all the photos in the future, there will always be women,” she said. “Not just one woman—there will be women.”