Her parents find her job exciting, but they would like her to marry: Frances Marian “Poppy” Northcutt at NASA and beyond

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Frances Marian “Poppy” Northcutt in one of the space exhibits of the Palais de la Découverte, a science centre in Paris, France, not Texas. Anon., “Astronautique – ‘Poppy’ à Paris.” Aviation Magazine International, 15 to 31 March 1970, 42.

Howdy, my reading friend, and how are things in your corner of this flat, sorry, circular planetary body we call Earth – which is kind of funny given that most of Earth is made of rock, much of which is molten, but I digress.

Today’s peroration is brought to you by the 15 to 31 March 1970 issue of Aviation Magazine international, a French bimonthly magazine yours truly discovered around… 1970, when I was barely in my teens – and had plenty of short hair on my noggin.

The article in this very interesting publication which sparked this equally interesting article in our blog / bulletin / thingee dealt, very briefly one must say, with a stay in Europe and, more specifically, Paris, France, by a charming ambassadress of the American space programme, Frances Marian “Poppy” Northcutt. And yes, this issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee will mainly be about an individual, and not some strange vehicle. Sorry.

Yours truly is also sorry that I will not enchant you with a great many words on the history of the Palais de la Découverte, a kick posterior science centre located in Paris, but back to our story.

Northcutt was born in August 1943 – and yes, I know it’s not polite to divulge the age of a lady. The jig is up. I’m not a nice Homo sapiens.

Northcutt, say I, was born in August 1943, in the United States.

I hear (read?) that Northcutt’s brother was sufficiently impressed by her size that he nicknamed her “Poppy” after the main character of a 1934 children’s book entitled Poppy: The Adventures of a Fairy. The Poppy in question was a 10 centimetre (4 inch) tall fairy who had all sorts of adventures while living with a human family.

At age 12, a freckled Northcutt asked her parents to contact the local authorities so that her legal name could be changed, from Frances to Poppy. Her mother pointed out that, by the time she was grown up, the nickname would no longer be used – and her freckles would be gone. Mother did not know best, on either count.

Along with a rather small minority of Americans of her generation, especially female ones, Northcutt went to university, in 1961, more specifically the University of Texas. She initially wanted to be an English major. Aware that such people had a tough time finding a job and unwilling to be a starving poetess, Northcutt went into mathematics.

Why mathematics, you ask, my numerically challenged reading friend? Well, for one thing, Northcutt knew this field was, to be blunt, a human male’s field. In other words, a well-paid one. This being said, she readily acknowledged that the teachers in the department of English were collectively far better than those in the department of Mathematics.

After graduating, Northcutt joined the staff of TRW Systems Group Incorporated, a division of TRW Incorporated, an aerospace firm which did some business, the analysis of Apollo spacecraft trajectories I believe, with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), an organisation we both know mentioned in many issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since March 2018.

To be more precise, the job Northcutt fulfilled from 1965 onward was that of computress / computer – an exclusively female profession. In other words, she ran calculations based on the work of the engineers, while happened to be all male. Please remember that a lot of this work was done was a pencil and / or, perhaps, an adding machine. Oh joy. Oh yes, and long live patriarchy!

Eager to make sense of the grunt work / number crunching work she was doing day after day, Northcutt took some of said work home and began to pore over it. She soon began to ask questions. Her curiosity and determination impressed her male supervisor who pestered his superiors at TRW Systems Group to such an extent that, after 6 months on the job, the firm’ management made Northcutt a member of the technical / engineering team working on its NASA project. Would you believe that Northcutt was the first female human being on a NASA-related technical / engineering team?

The catch with that promotion was that the pay difference between the all-female computress role and the all-male engineer role was of such magnitude that TRW Systems Group did not have a directive / guideline / policy to approve her promotion. If I may be so bold, imagine being a nun, and a new one at that, being offered a job as a bishop. The firm’s management did not quite know what to do. It was not too thrilled at the idea of significantly boosting Northcutt’s salary either. Her supervisor would not let his superiors off the hook, however. The firm’s solution was to give Northcutt a whole slew of pay raises as quickly as it could. The folks in the pay office must have been soooo happy, but I digress.

Although very pleased with her good fortune, Northcutt realised like never before the enormity of the gender pay gap women across the industrialised world were victims of. She was lucky, and knew it.

In the meantime, Northcutt had been posted to NASA’s mission planning and analysis team, whose room was down the hall from the main Mission Control Center at the Manned Spacecraft Center, the ancestor of today’s Johnson Space Center. One could argue that TRW Systems Group loaned her to NASA. Would you believe that Northcutt was the first female human being directly involved in the daily activities of said Mission Control Center? Better yet, would you believe that the aforementioned Manned Spacecraft Center was mentioned in June and July 2019 issues of our… Oh, you knew that. Sorry.

Northcutt’s presence at the Manned Spacecraft Center did not go unnoticed. The language spoken (shouted?) by members of the mission planning and analysis team quickly lost a great deal of, well, colour, for example. As well, sadly enough, Northcutt had to put up with @$?* that no one should have to put up with. Would you believe that some sleazebag(s) at NASA had the brilliant idea of hiding a video camera trained on her workstation? She was spied upon for weeks if not months. Northcutt also noted that, while she drove an old Volkswagen to go to her one bedroom apartment, her colleagues drove expensive automobiles to go to their multiroom houses. This was patently unfair. She was, after all, as smart as any of these yoyos – and probably smarter than many of them.

As we both know, my reading friend, Northcutt was not the only woman who had to put up with @$?* that no one should have to put up with, and NASA was not the only place where this type of situation occurred. Discrimination for reasons of age, disability, ethnicity, gender, language, mobility, sexual orientation, race, religion, etc. was endemic in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was / is still endemic half a century later. Isn’t Homo sapiens a real piece of work? Sorry.

By early 1970, Northcutt claimed that she was now one of the boys. Yours truly has no way of knowing whether or not this was true.

Northcutt was one of the people involved in calculating the trajectory that the Apollo 8 spacecraft followed when its crew flew to the Moon and back to Earth, in December 1968 – a crucial step toward the 1969 Moon mission of Apollo 11. And yes, my reading friend, sending 3 human beings to the Moon and returning them safely was mind-bogglingly complicated. Compared to that, figuring out how many angels could dance or stand on the point of a needle, or the head of a pin, was child’s play.

The answer is 42.

As she pored over the data, Northcutt asked questions which led to the discovery of at least one potential and / or real mistake. Apollo 8’s commander, Frank Frederick Borman II, publicly acknowledged Northcutt’s contribution to his safe return home in a number of press conferences.

And yes, Apollo 8 and Apollo 11 were respectively mentioned in May and July 2019 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee, and in many issues of that same amazing publication since May 2019.

Northcutt seemingly had to learn to smoke a cigar when her NASA colleagues celebrated the successful splashdown of every Apollo mission.

It goes without saying that Northcutt was involved in the aforementioned Apollo 11 mission, in July 1969.

Northcutt was also among the countless people who got the crew of Apollo 13 back to Earth unharmed in April 1970 – a mission mentioned in June and July 2019 issues of our you know what. She was one of the people involved in the writing of the computer programme which got the 3 astronauts home.

If Northcutt’s presence did not go unnoticed within the Manned Spacecraft Center, it was also noticed by numerous media outlets in the United States and in other countries. One could argue that Borman’s gracious acknowledgement of her role in keeping him and his comrades alive was to blame. The March 1970 Aviation Magazine international article which caught my roving eye would be an example of that interest. There were also articles in West German and Italian (general interest?) magazines. Would you believe that Northcutt was mentioned in a 1969 issue of Illustrated Weekly of Pakistan?

Northcutt appeared on Mexican television, in the Ciudad de México station operated by Televisión Independiente de México. A state radio and television broadcaster from a land equally distant from the United States, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, was also intrigued by Northcutt. The latter was interviewed in 1969. A link to this interview can be found at

People who read about Northcutt, or saw her on television, learned that she preferred wine to beer or bourbon. (I prefer beer. Good beer.) The tall (1.765 metre (5 feet 9.5 inches)) and pretty blue eyed young woman “with long golden hair, and a smiling face spotted with friendly freckles,” their words, not mine, liked / loved to swim, ski, sail and dance. In early 1970, for example, during the trip to Europe mentioned in Aviation Magazine international, Northcutt skied in the Alps. At the time, she was taking at least one (correspondence?) class offered by the University of Texas. Northcutt was also taking French classes.

Northcutt’s parents found her job exciting, but would have liked her to marry. She had no plans to do so at the time. Indeed, Northcutt never married, as far as yours truly can ascertain.

Incidentally, would you believe that Northcutt’s employer, TRW Systems Group, put out an ad whose headline read “TRW’s Poppy Northcutt keeps bringing astronauts home?” Subtle, isn’t it? Said ad graced the pages of nearly all American national magazines. And yes, more journalists presumably came knocking on Northcutt’s door when they saw that little gem.

A few words published in April 1970 by an American newspaper which shall remain nameless was not quite as subtle.

A former beauty contestant who name has been linked romantically with Astronaut John [Leonard] Swigert Jr. played a key role in bringing the Apollo 13 crew home safely. […] Bachelor girl Poppy Northcutt, 26, a tall winsome blonde mathematician, was the only female working inside the Mission Control Center during the Apollo 13 emergency.

Northcutt was a “popular, fun loving girl” who “used to wear glasses, but switched to contact lenses. She also bleaches her hair.”

Another journalist ended an article on Northcutt by stating that she had great legs. I kid you not.

Why the puzzled face, my reading friend? You wish to know which beauty competition Northcutt took part in? Seriously? Well, said competition was the University of Texas’ Ten Most Beautiful Contest. I think.

Would you be surprised, my blasé reading friend, if I told you that Northcutt was inundated by fan mail? This being said (typed?), some of the letters she received were a tad odd. A person asked if Northcutt could help her / him get a visa. Another person asked if she could send him / her money. Yet another person asked if “Poppy” Northcutt really existed.

If I may be permitted a bit of debunking at this point in our story, the commander of the Apollo 17 mission did not name a small crater located near the landing site of the Lunar Module / Lunar Excursion Module after Northcutt, and… No, Eugene Andrew “Gene” Cernan did not unofficially / informally christen said crater Northcutt. He named it Poppie, after the moniker his 9-year old daughter, Tracy Dawn “Punk” Cernan, had given to one of her grandfathers. Someone at NASA goofed, however, and used the spelling Poppy in documents printed at the time. Now that yours truly think about it, the goof in question may have thought that Cernan was honouring Northcutt by naming a crater after her. Cernan did, after all, unofficially / informally christen another small crater Punk.

You will remember that Northcutt knew all too well that she and all other women at NASA, TRW Systems Group and elsewhere were getting a raw deal. While working for TRW Systems Group, she served on the firm’s affirmative action committee. Northcutt pushed for improved pregnancy leave policies, for example. She also stated, quite publicly from the looks of it, that she would be willing to sue the American government if women who submitted an application were refused the chance to become astronauts.

Starting in the summer of 1970, Northcutt became more and more involved in the activities of the National Organization for Women (NOW), a very well-known organisation which advocated / advocates for equal access, pay and rights for women in the United States. In the early 1970s, Northcutt helped with the organising of demonstration and strikes, the writing of press releases and speeches, and whatever else she could find the time to do. A participant in the August 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality, she went on serve on NOW’s board of directors in 1971.

At some point, Northcutt left her workstation at NASA and went back to her workstation at TRW Systems Group. She knew that NASA was trimming its staff as the Apollo programme wound down and concluded with some sadness that the missions to Mars that she had dreamt of helping would not happen anytime soon. Northcutt did not stay with TRW Systems Group for long. She went to Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated, a world famous stockbroker firm, where she spent a year or so. Unsatisfied with this new career choice, Northcutt spent some time for some division or other of TRW, helping to program the computers which controlled electrical power systems in foreign countries.

The mayor of Houston, James Fred Hofheinz I believe, was so impressed by Northcutt’s efforts on behalf of women that he made her the first women’s advocate for the city, in 1974. She was able to obtain the approval of various measures which improved the status of women. Northcutt was heavily involvement in decisions made by the Houston Police Department and the Houston Fire Department to accept women as police officers and firefighters. She was a key player in efforts to greatly increase the number of women on appointed commissions and board in Houston and / or Texas. Northcutt also played a crucial role in the passing of a law in the Texas Legislature which barred hospitals in that state from charging women who were going there to get a rape kit. I readily admit my jaw hit the floor when I came across that piece of information.

Increasingly outraged by the raw deal women were getting on a daily basis, Northcutt attended night classes in law school, at the University of Houston. She got her degree in 1984. Northcutt graduated summa cum laude. The newly minted criminal lawyer specialised in cases linked to civil rights, domestic violence and reproductive rights. At some point, Northcutt worked for Jane’s Due Process, a Texas not for profit organisation which sought to help and protect young pregnant women. She was also the first prosecutor in the domestic violence unit of the district attorney office of Harris County, where Houston was / is located, a position she held for 5 years before going into private practice.

You may be pleased to hear (read?) that Northcutt was President of Texas NOW as of early 2020. May she live long and prosper.

Take care of yourself, my reading friend.

Author(s)
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Rénald Fortier