The Woman Behind Apollo 11’s Success

Neil Pandya, Contributing Writer

Who really was the true hero during the launch of Apollo 11? Was it Neil Armstrong, the first human on the moon? Not necessarily. While Armstrong was among the first to have physically set foot on extraterrestrial ground, scientific discoveries have mentally set foot onto another frontier of knowledge in the 1960s, in part due to the heroic efforts of JoAnn Morgan: the sole female engineer who worked in the firing room during Apollo 11, critical for its success.

Brendan Byrne, in an NPR talk show, described Morgan as “a trailblazer… outspoken and innovative, traits that took her from the firing room to the boardroom…“ Morgan spent her summers interning at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, working alongside scientists such as Wernher von Braun—the expert who designed Apollo 11’s Saturn V rocket. Given her experiences, Morgan later became the instrumentation controller for NASA, responsible for the readings from the sensors on rockets, computers, and motors, important for NASA’s purpose and mission. 

As a female, working at NASA was no easy task, surrounded by mostly male engineers and experts. “I did [face] little tidbits of resistance [because of my gender]. I got obscene phone calls on my console a couple of times, and I would just report those to the communications people.”

Suzy Cunningham, an experienced NASA engineer, described Morgan as a “huge glass ceiling breaker.” Working with Cunningham closely, Morgan strengthened her personality while maintaining years of critical work experience at NASA. Her dedication and achievement with NASA considered, in 1969, a huge opportunity opened for her to monitor the launching of Apollo 11.

“They [the other test supervisors and male peers] got used to me, and they accepted me. And so by Apollo 11, them putting me out there to be there at liftoff was probably not that big a surprise.”