The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing is rightly being celebrated as the greatest human achievement in human history. However, two major newspapers have run stories that when it is all said and done, the race to the moon was a sexist white male exercise.
The Washington Post snarked, quoting one of those white guys, “I don’t want to be politically incorrect here, but the workforce, the culture, was white male. In the firing room, we had almost 500 people and we have one female, one black guy and one Hispanic.”
“The Apollo program was designed by men, for men. But NASA can learn from its failures as it aims to send women to the moon and beyond.”
It is too bad that we went to the moon during the Mad Men era. Perhaps we should have waited until America was a more inclusive nation.
Seriously, though, the Post and the Times are dumping on Apollo because of a demographic in its workforce that NASA had no control over. The space agency required, until just before the very end of Apollo, that its astronauts be test-pilots. No women and very few minorities were test pilots of the caliber of being an astronaut. The pool of female engineers and scientists was very small, simply because American culture valued a woman’s role as wife and mother. Women were just beginning to make their presence felt in the workplace beyond clerical jobs.
The two newspapers are committing a fallacy that historians call “presentism.” Presentism is the tendency to judge people and interpret past events through the prism of present-day values. Hence, we have the drive to demonize the Founding Fathers because some of them owned slaves. It’s awoken to drive to denigrate great people and events because they don’t measure up to modern standards.
Besides, the paucity of women in the Apollo-era space program doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. Many people have seen the film “Hidden Figures” based on a book of the same name. The movie depicted the struggles and achievements of a group of African American women who were human computers, calculating the trajectories that sent Americans into space and ultimately to the moon. They endured racism and sexism, but for them, the early space program was empowering.
Margaret Hamilton, who worked at MIT at the time, is another female hero. She developed the software that helped the Apollo astronauts land on the moon. While so doing, she created out of whole cloth modern computing.
If the gentle reader has seen the recent documentary film “Apollo 11,” he or she will notice a scene of a conference consisting of the personnel of the firing room at Cape Kennedy. There, in a sea of men in their unofficial NASA uniforms of white shirts, narrow dark ties, and dark slacks, is a single woman. Joann Morgan, an aerospace engineer, and a pioneer. Her counterpart in mission control was Poppy Northcutt, then an engineer and now an attorney. Sara Howard was one of the two female engineers who worked on the Saturn V.
The Apollo program was not sexist by the standards of its times, but rather enlightened where it came to providing opportunities for women, albeit just a few. The Margaret Hamiltons and Katherine Johnsons of the Apollo era created a pathway for the thousands of women, from astronauts such as Sally Ride and Judi Resnick to many engineers, flight controllers, and scientists who followed starting in the 1970s. Women showed during the space shuttle era, including Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a space shuttle mission. Later, Peggy Wilson would command the International Space Station.
The future for women in space exploration is bright. NASA is now embarked on a return to the moon program called Artemis. The name, taken from the twin sister of Apollo, is very apt. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has pledged that the next mission to the moon will carry “the first woman and the next man.” He has also suggested that the female astronaut will be the first out of the lunar lander and the next to place boot prints on the surface of the moon.
All of those women who worked for the Apollo program will have blazed the trail for that first female footstep. They should be celebrated, not made into victims.