NASA engineer celebrated as ‘a huge glass ceiling breaker’

After Apollo 11, Morgan's career took off. From 1958 to 2003, she continued to break barriers and became the first female senior executive at the Kennedy Space Center.

WASHINGTON — During the historic launch of Apollo 11 which put the first men on the moon, rows of men in shirts and ties lined the consoles inside Kennedy Space Center. But one woman stood out — 28-year-old JoAnn Morgan.

Morgan, who worked as an instrumentation controller for the mission, was the only woman allowed inside the firing room where NASA employees were locked during Apollo 11’s historic liftoff on July 16, 1969.

Morgan needed to be in the room to alert the test team if anything went wrong. But she had to get special permission to be there. “My director of information systems called me and said, ‘You’re our best communicator. We’re going to have you on the console,'” she said. “But later I found out he had to convince the center director Dr. Kurt Debus that it was going to be OK.”

You can see never-seen-before footage of Morgan in CNN Films’ documentary “Apollo 11.” She inspired a generation of women, but her path wasn’t always an easy one.

As the first female engineer at Cape Canaveral, Morgan recalled being “immersed in a man’s world where everybody around me were men.” That fact became quite apparent at certain times. “A lot of the buildings I worked in didn’t have ladies’ restrooms,” she said. Just like the women in the movie “Hidden Figures,” Morgan had to go to another building or use the men’s room.

“Sometimes during tests, the guard was just great. He’d come over and say, ‘You need a little break? I’ll police the men’s room.'” Morgan said the guys tried not to notice. “If I had to go, I had to go!” she said with a laugh.

Being a female also meant dealing with sexism and come-ons from time to time. “When I first started in Blockhouse 34, the test supervisor came and literally hit me on the back. He said, ‘We don’t have women here.’ And I thought, ‘Uh oh.’ So, I called my director … and phone calls were made,” she said. “That very same day, the big guy in charge of the Apollo program at the Kennedy Space Center came down … and he said, ‘JoAnn, you are welcome to work here. Don’t worry about anything anybody says.'”

When Morgan first started working in the firing room, she also got some obscene phone calls. “One time when one of them came through, I slammed the phone down. And one of the television operators from the station downstairs came up and he said, ‘Is something wrong? Is something wrong?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘The look on your face. Has there been a death in the family?’ I said, ‘No, an obscene phone call.'”

“But I never let myself feel like an object. I was not going to be an object. I just had too much fearlessness in me to let that be any kind of deterrent.”

Roy Tharpe sat next to Morgan in the firing room as the chief test support controller for Apollo 11. “You could never pull anything over on her because she would take and cut you to pieces,” Tharpe recalled. “She was extremely competent.”

Growing up, Morgan was a precocious child of World War II. She skipped the first grade and read all the books in her elementary school library. Her favorite gift from her dad was a chemistry set. “I blew up the patio and cracked the concrete. But he didn’t fuss. He just said, ‘How did you do that?'” she recalled.

“She was very, very smart,” her younger sister Jean Helms said. “She had it all—the beauty and the brains.”

At 17, Morgan was selected to work as an intern at the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency. “The great thing was the ad said ‘student.’ Because if it said ‘boys,’ I wouldn’t have applied,” she recalled.

At Cape Canaveral, she held her own with the guys, Morgan’s colleague Roy Tharpe said, even though there were some who didn’t want her there. “There were some men, and we would counsel our guys,” Tharpe said. “But there was no doubt about it. She had the moxie of what it took to be in a position of being the only woman in the firing room for Apollo 11.”

After Apollo 11, Morgan’s career took off. From 1958 to 2003, she continued to break barriers and became the first female senior executive at the Kennedy Space Center. “When you looked at JoAnn and the way she worked the politics and the way she did things, she had greatness,” Tharpe said.

Suzy Cunningham, who works as a strategy and integration manager for NASA, used to work for Morgan. “She was a champion for me. JoAnn is a huge glass ceiling breaker for all the women at Kennedy Space Center,” she said. “She’s a huge inspiration to all of us to say that ‘You can do this.'”

“I’m very proud that we got away from too pale, too male, too stale,” Tharpe said. “Because JoAnn brought young ladies in who were very smart, and they held their own. I know she can look in the mirror and smile (and say) ‘Yes, I did that.'”

Now 78, Morgan is enjoying retirement and splits her time between Florida and Montana. But that wasn’t always her plan. There was a time when she wanted to spend her golden years on Mars. “I thought they should have a geriatric program. If it happened 15 years ago, I would have been a volunteer.”

When she watches the moon shine across the lake behind her Montana home, it’s hard not to smile when she thinks of all she’s accomplished. “I got to help put 12 people to walk on that moon. And I love telling everybody about it too.”

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