NASA executive JoAnn Morgan paved the way for women in the US space program

JoAnn Morgan paves way for women in NASA space program
Image: NASA

On July 16, 1969, NASA’s gigantic Saturn V rocket blasted off from Launch Complex 39A, at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A single woman watched from the government agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. She sat at a console in the left center of the third row in Mission Operations Control Room 2 (MOCR 2). Her name was JoAnn Morgan.

Morgan made history as the only female among dozens of men who witnessed the game-changing launch. Notably, she served as the instrumentation controller for the renowned lunar mission.

This week, NASA and space enthusiasts everywhere are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s blastoff. More importantly, the globally watched spaceflight enabled American astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, to walk on the moon.

With NASA’s current goal to land the first-ever woman (and the next man) on the moon by 2024, it seems fitting to look back at the prolific trail that JoAnn Morgan blazed for females in the space program who followed her.

Satellite Launch Sparks Teen Space Dream

Morgan grew up in Alabama. When she was a junior in high school, her father moved her entire family to Titusville, Florida. Once there, the curious teen couldn’t help but notice all the rockets that blasted off across the river from her new high school.

At the time, watching launches with her friends felt like “watching fireworks on the beach,” Morgan explained in a NASA profile. The young woman’s dream to be part of the American space program began when she was a high school senior.

When the U.S. launched its first satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958, a resulting scientific discovery prompted the visionary teen to pursue a life-changing, space-focused path.

The satellite reportedly “reacted to what appeared to be radiation.” Following the event, Dr. James Van Allen devised a theory that “charged particles were trapped in space by Earth’s magnetic field.” This remarkable scientific breakthrough sparked Morgan’s thirst for knowledge.

“I thought to myself, this is profound knowledge that concerns everyone on our planet,” she told NASA. “This is an important discovery, and I want to be a part of this team. I was compelled to do it because of the new knowledge, the opportunity for new knowledge.”

Groundbreaking Beginnings

Morgan excelled in math and science, which helped her land a summer internship with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. She accepted one of two open Engineer’s Aide positions. Notably, the ad didn’t seek strictly male applicants. Instead, it only specified the gender-neutral term “students.”

Upon graduation, then-17-year-old Morgan spent summers working as a University of Florida Army trainee at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. This program transitioned into a cutting-edge space exploration agency, dubbed the “National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).”

Morgan worked for the groundbreaking organization while completing a Bachelor of Arts degree at Jacksonville State University. At NASA, she worked entirely with men.

“All of my mentors were men,” Morgan said in a statement. “That’s just a plain fact, and that needs to be acknowledged.”

The first Director of Kennedy Space Center, Dr. Kurt Debus, recognized the young female intern’s academic strengths. Therefore, under his guidance, she became a certified Measurement and Instrumentation Engineer, and a Data Systems Engineer. Following those achievements, KCS hired her as a Junior Engineer.

As the space center’s only female employee, she endured some backlash from her all-male co-workers. Despite supervisor Jim White’s strict instruction for the men to “treat her like an engineer,” Morgan experienced numerous on-the-job challenges.

It seems unthinkable today that a security guard had to clear out the “men’s only” restroom for Morgan. Or, that she had to field obscene phone calls. Or, even worse, that a male co-worker hit her on the back and ordered her to leave a workspace that didn’t allow women. Yet, these things happened.

Despite those obstacles, Morgan persisted in doing her job. Her efforts paid off when NASA engineer, Karl Sendler, called her and said, “You’re going to be on the console for Apollo 11!”

Ceiling-Busting Career

Morgan made history as the first woman to ever sit in NASA’s Mission Operations Control Room and take an active part in a rocket launch. From there, her list of landmark U.S. space program achievements is impressive and inspirational.

She was the first NASA woman to win a Sloan Fellowship. After earning a Master of Science degree from Stanford University, she returned to NASA and made history again as the first woman who assumed the role of Computer Systems division chief.

Morgan served in many “first-female” roles at NASA. For instance, she was the deputy of Expendable Launch Vehicles, the director of Payload Projects Management, and the director of Safety and Mission Assurance, to name a few.

The Alabama-native leader also received a plethora of prestigious career awards. Notable examples include a special achievement award for her work during the activation of Apollo Launch Complex 39, four exceptional service medals, and two outstanding leadership medals.

Furthermore, U.S. President Bill Clinton honored Morgan as a Meritorious Executive in 1995 and 1998. Notably, she is a 1995 Florida Women’s Hall of Fame inductee. Morgan received the Debus Award from the National Space Club in 1998. In 2001, she earned the Society of Women Engineer’s National Upward Mobility Award. These are just some of the space program icon’s numerous career honors.

Overall, her professional path at NASA spans over four decades. In the years before her 2003 retirement, Morgan was the director of External Relations and Business Development.

Blazing a Future Female Space Trail

Today, NASA’s space program is thriving. Thanks to JoAnn Morgan’s trailblazing efforts, women are playing a significant role in the future of space exploration.

For instance, American astronaut Peggy Whitson was the first female commander of the International Space Station (ISS) and still holds the record for the most days spent in space at 665. Moreover, U.S. astronaut Anne McClain just returned from the ISS and her American crewmate, Christina Koch, is still aboard the floating lab with Expedition 60.

Overall, women make up 34 percent of active NASA astronauts.

Currently, women hold various STEM-related positions at the historic space agency. For example, NASA Technologist, Mahmooda Sultana, is developing a nanomaterial-based detector sensor platform that will be critical to the upcoming moon and Mars missions. Kathy Loftin is the deputy chief technologist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Moving forward, another woman will make history as the first female astronaut to land and walk on the moon.

Hopefully, more than one woman will guide her lunar landing from Mission Control. This would certainly be a wonderful tribute to JoAnn Morgan and female dreamers all over the world.