Frances Northcutt

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Frances 'Poppy' Northcutt
Poppy Northcutt 2019.jpg
Poppy in 2019
Born (1943-08-10) August 10, 1943 (age 75)
ResidenceHouston, Texas
Other namesPoppy
Alma materUniversity of Texas
OccupationEngineer, Lawyer, Stockbroker

Frances 'Poppy' Northcutt (born August 10, 1943) is a Texas attorney who notably began her career as a 'computress' and then an engineer for the technical staff on NASA's Apollo Program during the space race. She was the first female engineer to work in NASA's Mission Control during Apollo 8.[1] [2] Lunar crater Poppy was named in her honor for her work and pioneering in the Apollo Program.[3][4][5]

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, she works and volunteers for several organizations in Houston advocating for abortion rights.

Early Life[edit]

Frances "Poppy" Northcutt was born in Manny, 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, as a computer for the new Apollo program. She was soon promoted to engineer stationed in the Mission Control's Mission Planning and Analysis room. She was the first female engineer to work as part of NASA's Mission Control.

Northcutt and her team designed the return-to-Earth trajectory that the Apollo 8 crew took from the moon back to Earth. She made key insights that identified mistakes in the plan before they were executed.[1] If there was any delay in swinging around the moon resulting in using up more fuel than planned it was up to Northcutt and her team to make on-the-spot calculations and changes to the plan to ensure the astronauts' safe return. Apollo 8 was the second crewed Apollo spacecraft and became the first crewed mission to ever leave orbit. It successfully reached the Earth's moon, orbited it and then returned to Earth safely on December 27,1968. [2][5][4][7]

Northcutt continued working with TRW and NASA for several more years working as a critical component of some of NASA's most historic 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 to get home immediately came in to find a way to get the astronauts home safely. [1] Her program that she worked on was used to compute the maneuvers to come home. Northcutt and the Mission Operations Team were later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Team Award for finding a way to safely return Apollo 13. Apollo 17, the last mission to the moon, landed next to "Crater Poppy", a crater named in Northcutt's honor for her work as one of the early pioneers in the Apollo program.[2][7][5]

Fighting for the Women's Rights Movement[edit]

As one of few women working in engineering, Northcutt became increasing involved in the Women's Liberation movement. She helped put on demonstrations, strikes, speeches, press releases and whatever she could to help the cause with the National Organization for Women. [7]She spoke at City Council many times and in 1974, the mayor of Houston, TX named her the first Women's Advocate for the City. In this position she passed a great deal of legislation passed improving the status of women. She negotiated an agreement with the Police Chief enabling women to become cops. She got the Fire Department to agree to let women in. She led a big equal pay study going through the entire payroll. She was so dedicated to improving equality that she counted every women's versus men's bathroom in all of Houston helping bring even this number to parity.

Northcutt helped drastically increase the number of women that were on appointed boards and commissions. [5] She helped pass a law that no longer allowed hospitals to charge women who came in for a rape kit. Later on, Northcutt would become President of both the Houston and entire Texas chapter for the National Organization of Women. [2][5]

During this time, Northcutt was still employed by TRW, receiving a partial salary as she was on loan. When her loan expired she went back to TRW for a while. However, she believed "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. Northcutt then switched into the TRW Controls division and during this time attended law school at night. 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][5]


  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. ^ Turnill, Reginald (January 18, 2007). The Moonlandings: An Eyewitness Account. Cambridge University Press. p. 365. ISBN 978-0521035354.
  4. ^ a b c 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. ^ a b c d e f Turnill, Reginald (January 18, 2007). The Moonlandings: An Eyewitness Account. Cambridge University Press. p. 365. ISBN 978-0521035354.
  6. ^ a b Ely, Jane (3 April 2008). "Frances Northcutt - Houston Public Library Digital Archives". Houston Public Library. Retrieved 20 November 2017.
  7. ^ a b c Rissman, Rebecca (2018). Houston, We've Had a Problem: The Story of the Apollo 13 Disaster. Capstone Press.