“I think people who end up ‘first’ don’t set out to be first. They set out to do something they love, and it just so happens that they are the first to do it.” Condoleezza Rice
July 1969 – Kennedy Space Center – Merritt Island, Florida: JoAnn Morgan was excited to work in the Apollo 11 moon launch control center. She was the only female in a room of almost 500 male managers, launch engineers and control technicians. Despite being only 28 years old, JoAnn was already a senior engineer with 10 years of experience at NASA, but she had not been allowed in the control room on previous rocket launches.
Four days before the launch, JoAnn was at her launch center workstation when a test supervisor slapped her on the back. He scowled, “We don’t have women in here,” and walked away. JoAnn turned away from her fellow employees to hide her tears. It wasn’t easy being the first female engineer at NASA.
Growing up, JoAnn preferred chemistry sets to doll houses. Although her father worked as an ordnance administrator at Cape Kennedy, she wasn’t interested in space exploration. That changed on January 31, 1958, when the high school senior sat on the beach and watched the launch of the Explorer 1 rocket, which carried the first U.S. satellite into orbit. Her father claimed that was the night she got rocket fuel in her veins.
JoAnn’s journey to NASA started a few months later when she spotted a summer job listing for two students to work as engineering aids with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (later NASA) in Huntsville, Alabama. She worked summers while earning a math degree at nearby Jacksonville State University.
After the incident with the test supervisor, JoAnn phoned her supervisor who had argued with top brass to have her in the launch room. He reassured her that her role as instrumentation controller was critical to the mission and that she was supposed to be there.
Later in the day, JoAnn felt a tap on her shoulder. NASA’s big boss, Rocco Petrone, in charge of the Apollo program at the Kennedy Space Center, was standing there. “Joann, you are our best communicator. Your job is critical to the mission, and you are welcome here. Don’t worry about anything anybody says.” Unbeknownst to Petrone, that afternoon he saved JoAnn’s career at NASA.
On Wednesday, July 16, 1969, wearing her best navy-blue dress, JoAnn was in the control room in a sea of men in white shirts and narrow black ties. At 9:32 a.m. EDT, Apollo 11, the first manned lunar mission, blasted off from Cape Kennedy. Four days later, more than 500 million people watched on television as mission commander Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and declared, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was one proud moment for JoAnn Morgan. She and her Apollo team had made history.
JoAnn’s journey at NASA was a difficult one. For 15 years she worked in a building without a women’s restroom. The security guards would ensure the restroom was vacant and then stand guard for her. She avoided riding the elevator with men because of the lewd remarks. Worst of all was the obscene phone calls at her desk. She thought about quitting, but she loved her job.
NASA selected JoAnn for a Sloan Fellowship to prepare her for management positions at the space center. After earning a Master of Science degree from Stanford University, the promotions came. Two years later, she was promoted to Chief of the Computer Services Division and then to Payload Projects Manager. As Director of Safety and Mission Assurance, she was one of the last two managers to verify that the space shuttle was ready for launch.
JoAnn Morgan became NASA’s first female senior executive as Associate Director of the Space Flight Center. After serving as the Director of External Relations and Business Development, JoAnn retired from NASA in 2003 after 45 years.
It has been more than 50 years since men walked on the moon. NASA’s Artemis 3 mission planned for 2025 will put the first woman and person of color on the moon. Pioneers like JoAnn have led the way. “I didn’t plan to be a pioneer,” says 82-year-old JoAnn Morgan. “I just had rocket fuel in my veins.”