50 years ago at 02:56 GMT on the 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to step onto the surface of another planetary body when he gingerly placed his left foot from “Eagle” – their lunar excursion module (LEM) – into the dust of the moon’s Sea of Tranquillity.
As a 13 year old boy in his dressing gown, I watched spellbound along with 600 million others as this unique live TV moment unfolded. James Burke tried to commentate on the grainy black and white pictures whilst Patrick Moore was stunned into a rare silence, looking even more goggle-eyed and endearingly dishevelled than he usually did.
Half a century on, what strikes me amongst all the recent films, TV specials, magazine articles and acres of newsprint covering the anniversary is the US space programme appears to have been an entirely male-dominated affair. Lots of men in suits talking earnestly to, and about, lots of other men in space suits.
What has not been generally publicised is none of this testosterone-fuelled exploration could have happened without female back-up.
In the pre-digital 60’s era, there was less computer memory in the Lunar Module which landed on the moon than is now in your average smart-phone. So a group of women skilled in maths were employed to run the complicated calculations and process the data so critical to the success of NASA’s space programmes.
One woman became known for her ability to calculate the correct trajectories required for the spacecraft launch and re-entry.
Katherine Johnson spent 33 years working for NASA and, along with her fellow mathematicians Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, they became famous internally for their reliable, pin sharp accuracy, ensuring the US crews of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes returned safely to the arms of their families.
Remarkably this only became public knowledge in 2016 when author Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures was published. It revealed thousands of women had been employed in the US by NASA as human computers and programmers.
One of the best was Margaret Hamilton, a computer scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, She was awarded the Presidential Medal Of Freedom by Barack Obama for her work. There is an iconic picture of her standing next to a pile of volumes of her codes which is as tall as she is.
Mission Control at Houston was traditionally a male sea of white shirts and ties. But amongst them was one of NASA’s first female engineers, JoAnn Morgan. A famous image of the time is the one below of her sitting at her console whilst her male colleagues surround her watching a launch.
What of female astronauts? All the 12 who walked on the moon between 1969 and 1972 were male. Indeed it wasn’t until 1983 that America finally put a women, Sally Ride into space. This was a shameful twenty years after Russia shot Valentina Tereshkova 48 times around the Earth in Vostok 6.
On re-entry her spacecraft’s navigation system developed a fault and she landed near the Mongolia/Chinese border. Villagers helped her out of her space-suit and invited Valentina to dinner, which she accepted. I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall that evening if my Mongolian wasn’t so rubbish.
Although she was later reprimanded for not undergoing medical tests first, they still made her a Hero of the Soviet Union. It should have been Heroine of course but the Russians hadn’t got an award for that in 1963. They still don’t.
Then of course there were the wives.
“If you think going to the moon is hard, try staying at home” said Barbara Cernan, the wife of Gene Cernan who was Commander of Apollo 17 and the last man to walk on the moon. She was part of the sisterhood known as the Astronauts Wives Club who bonded to support each other in the face of intense media scrutiny. It was not just their men-folk who were expected to have the Right Stuff.
Gene himself summed up just how important their contribution was afterwards. “If it weren’t for the wives who committed their lives to what we were doing, I don’t think we’d have ever gotten to the moon”.
“Happy, proud and thrilled” was their regular quote when asked how they felt as their husbands strapped themselves on top of enormous rockets full to the gunnels with explosive fuel.
In order to protect the astronaut’s images and careers, these women were expected to be the epitome of poise and serenity whilst hiding infidelities, domestic strife and naked fear.
Their family lives were spread across the pages of “Life” magazine and everything from their cookery skills to the colour of their lipsticks were scrutinised and copied. TV crews camped on their front lawns during launches and splashdowns – and marriages fell apart.
Jane Dreyfus divorced the third man on the moon, the late Pete Conrad. “We all tried to be so calm and so cool and everything. But we were a far cry from the Stepford Wives”.
Some turned to tranquilisers as a result, or alcohol in the case of Susan Borman, the wife of Apollo 8 Commander Frank Borman. But remarkably Jim and Marilyn Lovell rode out the storm.
Her husband was the commander of the ill fated Apollo 13 which very nearly didn’t make it back after an oxygen tank exploded two days into the mission. The crew performed a risky sling-shot manoeuvre around the moon whilst using the LEM as a lifeboat.
They still hold the record for the farthest humans have ever travelled from earth.
After Jim came home, Marilyn was terrified that every time he went out he wasn’t going to come back and had to seek psychiatric treatment. Finally she told him “You’re not flying again.” He didn’t.
Jim Lovell is still together with his high school sweetheart. “Lovell crater” on the far side of the moon has been named after him.
I’m sure his wife approved. But does she let him out of her sight?
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