Frances Northcutt

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Frances Northcutt
Poppy Northcutt 2019.jpg
Northcutt in 2019
Born (1943-08-10) August 10, 1943 (age 78)
Other namesPoppy
Alma materUniversity of Texas
University of Houston Law Center
OccupationEngineer, Lawyer, Stockbroker

Frances "Poppy" Northcutt (born August 10, 1943) is a Texas attorney who began her career as a "computress" and then an engineer for the technical staff on NASA's Apollo Program during the space race. During the Apollo 8 mission, she became the first female engineer to work in NASA's Mission Control.[1][2][3]

Later in her career, Northcutt became an attorney specializing in women's rights. In the early 1970s, she served on the national board of directors of the National Organization for Women.[4] Now[when?], she works and volunteers for several organizations in Houston[5] advocating for abortion rights.

Early life[edit]

Northcutt was born in Many, Louisiana, on August 10, 1943. She grew up in Luling, Texas, and then moved to Dayton, Texas. Northcutt attended high school at Dayton High School in Liberty County and then went on to study mathematics at the University of Texas.[6]


Engineering for the Apollo Program[edit]

After graduating in three and a half years, Northcutt was hired in 1965 by TRW, an aerospace contractor with NASA in Houston, as a computress for the new Apollo program. After six months, she had her first performance evaluation, and the head of Houston operations wanted to promote her to technical staff, the term they used for staff doing engineering work.[7] Northcutt was the first woman to work as technical staff.[8] The pay difference between the computress role and the technical staff role was so large that the company did not have mechanisms in place to approve Northcutt's promotion. The operations manager had to schedule pay raises as frequently as possible so that Northcutt's salary was equitable compared to her male colleagues.[8] This experience with the gender pay gap inspired Northcutt's later activism for women's rights.[7][8]

Northcutt was stationed in the Mission Control's Mission Planning and Analysis room. Northcutt and her team designed the return-to-Earth trajectory that the Apollo 8 crew took from the Moon back to Earth.[3] She was able to identify mistakes in the plan, including making calculations that lowered the amount of fuel used to swing around the Moon.[1] Apollo 8 was the second crewed Apollo spacecraft and became the first crewed mission to ever leave Earth orbit. It successfully reached the Moon, orbited it and then returned to Earth safely on December 27, 1968.[2][9][4][10]

Northcutt continued working with TRW and NASA for several more years, working NASA missions such as Apollo 13. After learning about the exploded oxygen tank on the Apollo 13 mission, Northcutt and the other engineers who developed the computer program for Apollo 13 all came in to find a way to get the astronauts home safely.[1] The program that she worked on was used to compute the maneuvers used to return the spacecraft. Northcutt and the Mission Operations Team were later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Team Award for their work on Apollo 13. In 2019 she gave an interview about her Apollo work.[11]

Lay-audience books and articles have claimed that a lunar crater near where the Apollo 17 Lunar Module landed was named for her.[2][9][10] However, Gene Cernan, the commander of the Apollo 17 mission, stated in an interview for the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal that in advance of the mission, he had named a crater after the nickname that his daughter used for one of her grandfathers. That nickname was "Poppie". NASA documents misspelled it as "Poppy". Apollo crews and the NASA Astronaut Office assigned unofficial names to lunar features for convenience in referring to them. Other names given by Cernan to craters near the landing site were "Punk", his nickname for his daughter, and "Frosty" and "Rudolph", the names of characters in children's Christmastime stories.[12][13] The International Astronomical Union's / U.S. Geological Survey's Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature has no entries for lunar craters named either "Poppie" or "Poppy".[14]

Fighting for the women's rights movement[edit]

While at TRW, Northcutt served on the company's affirmative action committee and advocated to improve its pregnancy leave policies.[15] As one of few women working in engineering, Northcutt became increasingly involved in the women's liberation movement. She helped organize demonstrations, strikes, speeches, press releases and whatever else she could to help the cause with the National Organization for Women.[10] She spoke at Houston City Council many times, and in 1974 the mayor of Houston named her the first Women's Advocate for the city. In this position she helped pass legislation improving the status of women. She negotiated an agreement with the Houston Police Department enabling women to become police officers. She got the Houston Fire Department to agree to let women serve as firefighters. She led an equal-pay study of the entire Houston municipal payroll. She was so dedicated to improving equality that she counted women's versus men's bathrooms[clarify] throughout all of Houston, helping to bring even this number into parity.

Northcutt helped drastically increase the number of women that were on appointed boards and commissions.[9] She helped pass a law that prohibited hospitals from charging women who came in for rape kits. Later on, Northcutt would become President of both the city of Houston chapter and the state of Texas chapter for the National Organization for Women.[2][9]

During this time, Northcutt was still employed by TRW, receiving a partial salary as she was on loan.[6][clarification needed] When her loan expired, she went back to TRW for a while. However, she believed that "If you were doing your job, you should do yourself out of a job" and thus went to Merrill Lynch, a stockbroker firm, for a year.[6][when?][citation needed] Northcutt then switched into the TRW Controls division and during this time attended law school at night.[6][citation needed]

Legal career[edit]

In 1984, Northcutt graduated summa cum laude from the University of Houston Law Center, becoming a criminal defense lawyer. Northcutt continued to practice law with special emphasis and dedication to her fight for civil rights.[6][9] Northcutt worked for Jane's Due Process, an organization that ensures protections for pregnant legal minors. She also worked for the Harris County District Attorney's office and was the first prosecutor in the Domestic Violence Unit.[16]


  1. ^ a b c Barteski, Ed (Editor) (2014). MAKERS Women in Space (Motion picture). Washington D.C.: Kunhardt McGee Productions.
  2. ^ a b c d "This Amazing 25-Year-Old Woman Helped Bring Apollo Astronauts Back From The Moon - Business Insider". Business Insider. 9 December 2014.
  3. ^ a b "Chasing the Moon: Transcript, Part Two". American Experience. PBS. 10 July 2019. Retrieved 24 July 2019.
  4. ^ a b Williams, Cristan (18 April 2014). "NOW state rep talks with the TransAdvocate about TERFs, trans-inclusion and civil rights". The TransAdvocate. Retrieved 2 August 2015.
  5. ^ "Poppy Northcutt Continues To Make History". National Organization for Women. 17 July 2019. Retrieved 21 February 2021.
  6. ^ a b c d e Ely, Jane (3 April 2008). "Frances Northcutt - Houston Public Library Digital Archives". Mrs. D's Timeline Costumes A collection of amazing women and the clothing I use to represent them. Archived from the original on August 28, 2014. Retrieved 23 February 2021. Alt URL
  7. ^ a b Diavolo, Lucy (July 10, 2019). "Career Advice From Poppy Northcutt — Activist, Lawyer, and NASA's First Female Engineer in Mission Control". Teen Vogue. Retrieved October 1, 2019.
  8. ^ a b c Karlin, Susan (2019-07-05). "How Poppy Northcutt cracked NASA's boys' club and became a feminist icon". Fast Company. Retrieved 2019-10-01.
  9. ^ a b c d e Turnill, Reginald (January 18, 2007). The Moonlandings: An Eyewitness Account. Cambridge University Press. p. 365. ISBN 978-0521035354.
  10. ^ a b c Rissman, Rebecca (2018). Houston, We've Had a Problem: The Story of the Apollo 13 Disaster. Capstone Press.
  11. ^ "Apollo 11 and the Woman Who Helped Get It Home". Retrieved 2019-07-23.
  12. ^ "The Valley of Taurus-Littrow". Retrieved 2019-07-26.
  13. ^ "Apollo 17 Lunar Module Onboard Voice Transcription MSC-07630" (PDF). pp. 1–73. Retrieved 2019-07-26.
  14. ^ "Planetary Names: The Moon". Retrieved 2019-07-26.
  15. ^ Karlin, Susan (5 July 2019). "How Poppy Northcutt cracked NASA's boy's club and became a feminist icon". Fast Company. Retrieved 8 October 2019.
  16. ^ Diavolo, Lucy (10 July 2019). "Career Advice From Poppy Northcutt — Activist, Lawyer, and NASA's First Female Engineer in Mission Control". Teen Vogue. Retrieved 8 October 2019.

Further reading and viewing[edit]