Planetary Radio • Jul 17, 2019

Apollo 11 and the Woman Who Helped Get It Home

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On This Episode

Poppy Northcutt

Attorney and Former Apollo Mission Control Engineer

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Rosaly Lopes

Senior Research Scientist/Manager for Planetary Science for Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Casey dreier tps mars

Casey Dreier

Chief of Space Policy for The Planetary Society

Bruce betts portrait hq library

Bruce Betts

Chief Scientist / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society

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Mat Kaplan

Senior Communications Adviser and former Host of Planetary Radio for The Planetary Society

Poppy Northcutt was a pioneer—the first woman to work as an engineer in Apollo Mission Control. The program she helped to create got the astronauts back to Earth. Fifty years later, she sits down with Mat Kaplan for a look back. They are joined by JPL planetary scientist Rosaly Lopes who was inspired to become a STEM professional by Poppy. You’ll also hear Apollo moonwalkers Buzz Aldrin and Charlie Duke at a 50th anniversary celebration, along with Casey Dreier’s introduction to The Planetary Society’s comprehensive Apollo at 50 resource. And we’ll get a LightSail 2 update from Bruce Betts.

Mat Kaplan, Poppy Northcutt and Rosaly Lopes
Mat Kaplan, Poppy Northcutt and Rosaly Lopes Mat Kaplan, former Apollo Mission Control engineer Poppy Northcutt and JPL planetary scientist Rosaly Lopes after their conversation at the California Science Center.Image: Mat Kaplan
Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface
Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface Buzz Aldrin poses on the lunar surface during Apollo 11. Neil Armstrong, who took the photograph, can be seen in Aldrin's visor.Image: NASA

This week's question:

Before being named Eagle and Columbia, what were the Apollo 11 Lunar Module and Command Module named?

To submit your answer:

Complete the contest entry form at or write to us at [email protected] no later than Wednesday, July 24th at 8am Pacific Time. Be sure to include your name and mailing address.

Last week's question:

With regard to spacecraft, what does ADCS stand for?


The answer will be revealed next week.

Question from the June 20 space trivia contest:

What are the four formal tracking station locations for LightSail 2? Latitude and longitude not required!


The four formal tracking station locations for LightSail 2 are Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Georgia Tech, Purdue University and Kauai Community College.


Transcribed by Planetary Society volunteer Jake Bathman:

[Mat Kaplan]: Celebrating Apollo with a woman who helped get the astronauts home, this week on Planetary Radio. Welcome, I'm Mat Kaplan of the Planetary Society with more of the human adventure across our solar system and beyond. Poppy Northcutt was the only female engineer working in Apollo mission Control from Apollo 8 through Apollo 13. Wait 'til you hear my extended conversation with her. It's coming right after we hear from a couple of moonwalkers and later Casey Dreier will tell you how you can join the celebration and learn more about those amazing missions at Bruce Betts has another LightSail update for us as we near the time when the little CubeSat will spread its wings. We'll start our 50th anniversary party with a little shindig thrown on Saturday, July 13 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library [00:01:00] in California.

[Announcer]: The one, the only, Buzz Aldrin right here.

[Buzz Aldrin]: Thank you.

[Mat Kaplan]: While there were other astronauts honored that evening, there's no question that Buzz Aldrin, the Apollo 11 Lunar Module pilot and moonwalker was the guest of honor.

[Buzz Aldrin]: I could give you a number of examples where I ended up being one of the most fortunate people because it didn't look like it was going to come my way, being an astronaut.

[Mat Kaplan]: Charlie Duke was on stage with Buzz, he was the Lunar Module pilot for Apollo 16 in 1972 and became the 10th of only 12 human so far who have left footprints on another world.

[Charlie Duke]: I stepped onto the Moon and it was like a little kid at Christmas and birthday all rolled into one. I was so excited. I'm on [00:02:00] the Moon. I'm on the Moon. And it was wonder and awe and excitement and adventure and... Buzz made a perfect description: magnificent desolation.

[Mat Kaplan]: Buzz Aldrin has spent the last half century pushing for advances in human spaceflight and especially for putting boots on Mars. You can hear his many Planetary Radio appearances at Use the special PlanRad search engine there to find the episodes. It was fitting that this pioneer once again expressed his impatience in a celebration of the Apollo 50th Anniversary.

[Buzz Aldrin]: 50 years ago the Saturn V took the Command Module, the Lunar Module, three of us, to the Moon. We landed, explored, got back up again, [00:03:00] rendezvoused, came back. That's 50 years of non-progress. I think we all are to be a little ashamed that we can't do better than that.

[Mat Kaplan]: We thank Buzz Aldrin Ventures for those sound clips. The Apollo 11 50th anniversary gala benefited Buzz's Human Spaceflight Institute. It took a team of four hundred thousand men and women to get Buzz, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins to the Moon and the vast majority of those team members were men. Their rarity alone made the women stand out, but I've learned that most of them would have been standouts based purely on their abilities, their contributions, and their drive. Poppy Northcutt is a great example. Poppy was the only woman engineer who worked in Apollo mission Control at Houston's Johnson Space Center. She put in countless hours on the navigation program that got the Apollo astronauts into orbit around the [00:04:00] Moon and brought them safely home and she was there in a different room, but on the communications network, for missions including Apollo 8, 11, and 13. As you'll hear, she went on to yet another impressive career of service, but it was her work on the space program that brought her to Los Angeles for the IMAX premiere of the spectacular documentary called, simply, <em>Apollo 11</em>. I've now seen it twice and it was just as thrilling the second time. See it, and see it on as big a screen as you can. I promise you won't be sorry. It was shortly after the screening that Poppy and I sat down to talk about her legacy with a surprise guest standing by for a shout-out at the end of our conversation. Poppy, I cannot tell you what a pleasure it is and what an honor it is to welcome you to Planetary Radio, especially after seeing that that spectacular film. Welcome.

[Poppy Northcutt]: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

[Mat Kaplan]: You [00:05:00] had I don't know how many hundreds of people here in the IMAX theater at the California Science Center, which by the way we are in right now. It's more or less deserted because it's after hours here, a place where people come to get excited about science which apparently was was true of you very early on in your life as well.

[Poppy Northcutt]: It was I became excited about it once I started working in the space program, especially.

[Mat Kaplan]: Did you... this is a funny way to start maybe, but did you ever get to see an Apollo launch?

[Poppy Northcutt]: Yes.

[Mat Kaplan]: ...because, you did? Which one did you see?

[Poppy Northcutt]: I saw 13.

[Mat Kaplan]: Oh my gosh.

[Poppy Northcutt]: Which was star-crossed.

[Mat Kaplan]: Uh-huh.

[Poppy Northcutt]: I flew out on my own dollar to see the launch at the Cape. I got down there and right after I got down there they announced that they might have to delay or even scrub the mission because one of the astronauts had the measles.

[Mat Kaplan]: Oh, I remember that and there was a substitution.

[Poppy Northcutt]: And there was a substitution, but at first we [00:06:00] didn't know is there going to be a substitution or not and I was very disconcerted because I was thinking, I spent all this money to come down here and thery're not gonna do a launch, or it may be delayed and I can't... I had a non-refundable ticket, I had to get back. So I was really on pins and needles. But then of course they did launch and I flew back right after the launch.

[Mat Kaplan]: Because you had to go to work.

[Poppy Northcutt]: I had to go to work, exactly, but I had time to see the launch because I didn't go to work until they were about eight hours, nine hours out from the Moon.

[Mat Kaplan]: Hmm, and you said moments ago when we were in that big IMAX theater that your job was limited to when the Apollo missions were within the realm of the Moon, right?

[Poppy Northcutt]: Exactly.

[Mat Kaplan]: Within the Moon's gravity well.

[Poppy Northcutt]: Very specialized occupation.

[Mat Kaplan]: And very important. I was going to bring up Apollo 13 a lot later. But since it's come up, since you brought it up, [00:07:00] you were involved with helping to get those guys home.

[Poppy Northcutt]: You wanted to come home from the Moon? I was involved.

[Mat Kaplan]: So things were not going as planned. You want to review that for anybody out there, the few people who listen to this show regularly who don't know what happened on the way to the Moon?

[Poppy Northcutt]: They had an explosion on the way to the Moon. They were still... I can't remember how far out they were, but it was after translunar injection, but well before they got to the Moon and there was a big bang. Nobody knew quite what exactly had happened. Actually nobody really knew what had happened until re-entry on that mission where they got us, you know, you do separation before you rent or and they got a look at what was back there.

[Mat Kaplan]: They got to look at the Service Module when they separated.

[Poppy Northcutt]: Which I'm sure had to be a shock whenever they saw it, but the main spacecraft engine was not [00:08:00] usable. That was the first mission that was supposed to be a non-free return mission and what that means is that the trajectory that they were on to go around the Moon ordinarily on previous missions if they had not gone into Lunar orbit they still would have been on a flight path to return to the Earth. That's called a free return. That one they were going to go a little higher inclination I think it was, so they weren't on a free return. So the first order of business was to put them on a free return. So at least we knew they were going to come back to the Earth eventually. In many ways, I mean people think that because I worked on the Abort Program, the Return To Earth program, that must have been a particularly challenging mission for me. Actually, it was not. It was challenging in the sense that it was an emergency situation and and we were dealing with a lot of unknowns, but we designed that program... that was exactly what it was designed for. [00:09:00] That was the first mission where it was actually used for what it was designed for. It was called initially the Abort Program. For sort of political reasons, they didn't like to emphasize the danger. It was renamed the Return to Earth program, a little more generic a little more user-friendly, but it was really designed for aborts. And we had simulated using the descent propulsion system to turn the...

[Mat Kaplan]: Are you talkinga bout the engine on the Lunar Module?

[Poppy Northcutt]: We had simulated that. We had simulated using the ascent propulsion system. We had simulated using the two of them together. We had simulated all of that kind of stuff. The people that had the most challenging things to do where the people dealing with environmental problems because there were a lot of those.

[Mat Kaplan]: These were the people we saw taking bits and pieces and trying to fit them together to quite literally to figure out how to keep the astronauts alive.

[Poppy Northcutt]: They were solving a problem in real [00:10:00] time. I mean actually making it up as they went along. We did not have to make it up as we went along. As I said, this was what we designed our program to do.

[Mat Kaplan]: Nevertheless, it was so critical, not just on Apollo 13, but for all of the Apollo missions beginning with Apollo 8, which you also worked on and nobody had ever done that before I mean is they say in Star Trek going where no one has ever gone, you had to get them back to Earth. Somebody asked you a question, there was must have been an engineer in the audience tonight who said he works with 15 decimal places...

[Poppy Northcutt]: 16.

[Mat Kaplan]: 16 decimal places of precision, and he asked how many you work with.

[Poppy Northcutt]: 32. This Is 50 years ago.

[Mat Kaplan]: Yeah, mind-boggling. You were prepared to do this because you started before you became a mission Control Specialist you were one of these people called a computress.

[Poppy Northcutt]: Yes.

[Mat Kaplan]: Did you know... I work for the Planetary Society, my boss is [00:11:00] Bill Nye the Science Guy.

[Poppy Northcutt]: Yes.

[Mat Kaplan]: He likes to talk about his mother who was a computer during World War 2. You were in the same line of business, basically, serving as human computers because you were great with, what, slide rules?

[Poppy Northcutt]: Well, we didn't use slide rules. We had big monster desktop calculators and they were monsters. I hated it.

[Mat Kaplan]: Those mechanical ones? That go ca-chunk, ca-chunk, ca-chunk, ca-chunk?

[Poppy Northcutt]: It was painful. I had one sitting right by me when I first started to work. It was huge. I don't know how much it weighed, at least 40 pounds. I wouldn't be surprised if it was sixty or seventy. Maybe 30 inches square and then maybe 12, 14 inches tall, and it was mechanical. So if you were doing a square root, it just clattered forever. It was so noisy. But the incredible thing was that after I'd been there only a few months really maybe eight [00:12:00] months, it was replaced by an electronic calculator, which was just as big, okay? It was still big, but it made no noise and it was fast. It was a miracle. And then not too long after that the operations manager in Houston operations walked through showing his new little trophy. It was a brick in his hand. From either, I can't remember if it was Hewlett-Packard or Texas Instruments, but it was a handheld calculator. Now they were too expensive for us to have them, okay? He was the only one who had it, but it was telling what the future was.

[Mat Kaplan]: I'm assuming that this wasn't much more powerful than the ones you can get for $3 now at 7-Eleven.

[Poppy Northcutt]: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean you're walking around with more computer power in your phone, probably, than they had [00:13:00] in the real-time computer complex. I wouldn't be surprised.

[Mat Kaplan]: I'm going to come back to the mission specifically, but but to talk about your work, when you made that jump from computress to engineer.

[Poppy Northcutt]: Yeah.

[Mat Kaplan]: That was a pretty big promotion, wasn't it?

[Poppy Northcutt]: It was a huge promotion and it was delayed. I was supposed to... I'd been promised, I'd been told after I'd been there six months that the operations manager wanted to promote me, and that he was expecting to do that at the end of the next six months, but the promotion didn't come and then it finally came like two or three months later. And when I went in to get a promotion the main thing that he did was apologize to me and what he was apologizing about was that because the salary jump was so high he had to fight with corporate headquarters. He had been fighting with corporate headquarters to get the promotion, to get me to the bottom of the pay grade. And he was upset that he was not able to get me higher because he thought it deserved to [00:14:00] be higher but he had to fight all that time just to get me to the bottom of the pay grade. And he told me that it would have been easier to have fired me and rehired me because he had the singular power to do that. But to do this kind of a promotion he had to go through all sorts of gyrations.

[Mat Kaplan]: My impression is that you were lucky to have this guy as a boss.

[Poppy Northcutt]: I was fantastically lucky.

[Mat Kaplan]: Because I'm going to guess that on average there weren't a lot of men who were that open-minded at the time. In fact, I've heard you describe this as a sea of sexism.

[Poppy Northcutt]: Yes. It was a sea of sexism. And not just for me. I mean, I'm the whole planet was a sea of sexism at that time.

[Mat Kaplan]: Did it disturb you at the time or was it just the way things were and...

[Poppy Northcutt]: It was gravity. It was like gravity. How many times do you think about gravity? And it's affecting your body 24/7, okay, every particle of your being but you don't notice it. That was the world in which [00:15:00] women lived at that time. You know, you noticed gravity whenever you slip on the banana peel or you decide to climb on the roof and fly.

[Mat Kaplan]: Or an apple falls on your head.

[Poppy Northcutt]: Suddenly. Yeah. Okay you go. Oh, okay, and it was sort of the same for me. I mean, I began to really perceive the sexism when I realized about the barrier. The pay thing that I could not be paid for more than nine hours a day, 54 hours a week because of wage hour laws, and that just infuriated me. Women could work three or four jobs. It's not that women couldn't work more than that. They just couldn't work for the same employer and get overtime. I recognized the significance of that immediately and two different ways. The most vicious part of that really wasn't even the pay discrimination that was involved. What it was was that if women were working on something like I was working on, how will you ever be accepted as a member of the team if you're not functioning like the [00:16:00] rest of the team members? If they're working 70 hours a week and you're leaving after 54 hours. To me that was the most invidious part was that it restricted your opportunities. And most women would leave. I mean, they would think I'm not getting paid and their boss would say hey, you're not getting paid, go home. My boss told me go home and I just ignored him and stayed.

[Mat Kaplan]: And you stayed for some very long days, right?

[Poppy Northcutt]: Yes, very long days.

[Mat Kaplan]: Especially during a mission.

[Poppy Northcutt]: Well, but I was promoted but by the time of missions.

[Mat Kaplan]: You were asked questions by reporters, you had things happen to you, that would be... I at least I was going to say that would be unthinkable today. They should be unthinkable today.

[Poppy Northcutt]: They should.

[Mat Kaplan]: Like you were saying, it was gravity. It was the way of the universe at that point.

[Poppy Northcutt]: It was. The sexism from the media was really far more obvious than the sexism in the workforce by the co-workers. And and most of the guys were fine, okay, you know, we were working on a very [00:17:00] mission focused thing. You know everybody really had their mind on the big prize which was getting a person to the Moon and getting them home safely.

[Mat Kaplan]: I was watching the film again today, this special IMAX version. Some of these names of people that were there in mission Control are now legends. You, I think, are rapidly becoming one of them. As I was looking at the film on the screen and I was blown away the first time and I was blown away again this time. And I've met maybe two or three of those people who show up in the film and I thought of you because I'm assuming that you were familiar with a lot of those faces that we were seeing on screen in mission Control. I mean, what does it feel like to watch, to relive that knowing that you were there in another room but very much a part of that team?

[Poppy Northcutt]: Well, it feels a little strange, and not entirely [00:18:00] comfortable to watch these documentaries. And part of that is because I was very focused on missions. I'm an expert at compartmentalization and focusing on what I'm doing. That's what you really had to do when you're over there. You have to pay attention to what you're doing. You don't worry about what other people are doing. They have to take care of their job. You have take care of yours. You can't be distracted. I think also probably that atmosphere of sexism probably had something to do with it as well. That being a woman, I thought it was very important that I not be emotional and that I not demonstrate any feeling of pressure. Compartmentalizing all of that. At the time, I was not nervous. I was cool as a cucumber, whether we were talking 11, any of those missions, 13, whatever. But watching these things on the big screen, I can't compartmentalize anymore. [00:19:00] I'm not in there anymore. So I start feeling anxiety when I watch some of it. That stuff that I zoned out. I can't zone out anymore. I've never been able to watch the movie Apollo 13, for example, I get about 10 minutes into it and it... I start feeling anxious.

[Mat Kaplan]: Well, I imagine that would be a nice complement to Ron Howard and all the other people who made that film but it's so interesting. I had kind of the same experience because I mean we all know how these missions ended up and yet you get so caught up in the film. And this feeling that, my God, what they are accomplishing and the dangers that they're facing. But you, you... that was not in your mind when you were doing your job making sure they did get back home.

[Poppy Northcutt]: No. You have clear line... I mean you have lines you're totally focused. But yes, I was very aware of the danger. I mean, there's, you know, there's gallows humor in the [00:20:00] scientific world, technical world. I very well remember when I started working on the Return to Earth, we would often have printouts that came back where they missed the re-entry corridor, and you know, the bottom of the printouts said RIP RIP RIP.

[Mat Kaplan]: RIP?

[Poppy Northcutt]: Rest in peace, rest in peace. I mean that's, you know, I saw many a print out whenever I started working with that was you know, that was the result of our calculation. We had not targeted adequately. So I was always very aware that space travel was inherently dangerous occupation. A tiny error could result in a really bad consequence.

[Mat Kaplan]: Was your program responsible for making sure not only that they got back to Earth but that they hit the atmosphere at just the right angle? Because that was such a critical thing.

[Poppy Northcutt]: We did not do re-entry, okay, someone else came up with those, but [00:21:00] that was a black box and we had to hit the middle of the corridor. And you know, that's what I'm talking about. If we you know, when we were first working, we would not hit the hit the corridor and you know, they would burn up. If you'd been flying a mission, I would have burned up. You know the errors when we started were just huge and we had to bring those errors down tremendously so that we could really operate with great precision.

[Mat Kaplan]: You gave a great example of that, the landing or splashdown ellipse when you got started was how big?

[Poppy Northcutt]: Bigger than the Atlantic Ocean.

[Mat Kaplan]: So fortunately they came down to the Pacific.

[Poppy Northcutt]: Well, but they didn't need to I mean by the time the the missions were flying I mean we could practically land on the deck of the ship. But but when we started that's how big the errors were.

[Mat Kaplan]: Talk about what it felt like. You had to feel some joy and excitement and release each of those [00:22:00] times they made it back safely partly because of your work.

[Poppy Northcutt]: Absolutely, but it was also great trepidation. I mean in the sense that you never felt... you never felt like a mission was a success, you never celebrated. I didn't anyway, I mean, I didn't celebrate whenever they walked around the Moon. I was pleased but I did not celebrate because it's not over till it's over. It doesn't matter how great. It doesn't matter if everything had gone perfectly if they don't come off that recovery ship, you know, if they don't get recovered, it's a failure.

[Mat Kaplan]: What was the relief like when Apollo 8 made it back safely because that was the first.

[Poppy Northcutt]: That was the first and I think the most difficult mission. I mean Apollo 13 was the most difficult in the sense that we had an emergency on board. But if you were to look at what was on the drawing board to be achieved when you started out at launch, okay, and compared the various missions, the challenges that were [00:23:00] present on flying 8 were definitely the greatest. Much of the hardware not been used, certainly not been used in a flight to the Moon of that kind of length and technical difficulty. All that software had never been used. The schedule has been accelerated, two months was taken away on the delivery of our program. I was rereading something I found in my locker, my storage unit, which really sort of hit me in the face. It reminded me of why I was so bloody tired during Apollo 8. We had to compress all of that testing as it went into the real-time computer program because they took away our test time. We were making bug changes. We were making bug fixes up until the last week before launch, which was against the rules. The system was supposed to be frozen at least two weeks before [00:24:00] launch. Then it... it had the numbers of how many translunar injections we verified during the flight and it was over 400.

[Mat Kaplan]: Wow.

[Poppy Northcutt]: They only did ten orbits, but we verified 400.

[Mat Kaplan]: Fantastic. Was it also a tough moment for you, I don't know how much you were involved with this, when Apollo 8 went behind the Moon and had to fire the engine and go into orbit?

[Poppy Northcutt]: That that particular maneuver... the major maneuvers are all done behind the Moon when your... you have no signal. And that first loss of signal was definitely a very scary thing because they're going to do this big maneuver that's never been done before, you don't know until they come out the other side, did it work? Okay, did they over burn? Did they under burn? If they [00:25:00] did, you won't have much time to fix it. You have to get tracking on them because you don't know where they are exactly. You may have a really desperate situation if the maneuver went badly. So yeah, and then they were late coming out. So that made it even worse.

[Mat Kaplan]: Did you get to meet any of the astronauts? The Apollo astronauts?

[Poppy Northcutt]: Sure, I met some of 'em. You know, I got a Snoopy... Silver Snoopy award from Neil. That if you worked in the program, that was that was the one you wanted.

[Mat Kaplan]: And not the only award that you got for your work...

[Poppy Northcutt]: No, but that was the one you wanted because that was for flight safety, and it was awarded by the astronauts.

[Mat Kaplan]: What about the other leaders? I was starting to talk about this earlier the other leaders who made so much of this possible Gene Kranz and Chris Kraft those guys.

[Poppy Northcutt]: Sure. I'm... I didn't know Chris Kraft, but I met Kranz. And you know the other flight directors that were over there, [00:26:00] but I didn't deal with them primarily. I dealt with the retrofire officers because we were there to support them.

[Mat Kaplan]: You were in it through what Apollo 13, right?

[Poppy Northcutt]: Yeah, but our program was used on all of the Apollo programs.

[Mat Kaplan]: But you went on to do other things, to get a completely different career for yourself.

[Poppy Northcutt]: I did. A lot of things were going on at the time. They stopped really doing lunar stuff, and it was clear they weren't going to do Mars stuff and I had already started working, the task I worked on it already started doing some preliminary advanced lunar missions as well as some very preliminary Mars work. I wasn't that enthusiastic about just dealing with Earth orbital stuff. That didn't really seem very challenging to me. So I got loaned to the City of Houston to the Mayor's office as the Women's Advocate and worked on improving the status of women in the City of [00:27:00] Houston. I became a lot more aware of the discrimination against women. I was pretty aware of it to start with but I became increasingly aware and I used to go to lunch with a federal judge and I would argue with him and tell him what I thought he had done wrong and he kept telling me you needed to you know, Poppy you need to go to law school and stopped practicing law without a license and one day I said, you know what I'm going to do that.

[Mat Kaplan]: And you did.

[Poppy Northcutt]: I did.

[Mat Kaplan]: Now I mean you were a prosecutor you... well, you still take some cases, don't you?

[Poppy Northcutt]: I do.

[Mat Kaplan]: And aren't you still very involved with NOW, with the National Organization for Women?

[Poppy Northcutt]: I am the State President of the National Organization for Women in Texas. And I work very hard at registering voters, trying to get women involved in the political process.

[Mat Kaplan]: So the end of your involvement with Apollo was certainly not the end of your activities that you could be proud of but I just wonder [00:28:00] where that part of your legacy, the Apollo portion and the contributions that you made, how you feel about that?

[Poppy Northcutt]: Well, I feel very proud of it. I mean I feel you know, I did a lot of work. I'm very proud of the work. And it's not so much that I take individual pride, I take pride in the team, because that was a massive team effort. And I don't think very many people appreciate how big that team was and how critical everybody's role was. I mean, people like to talk about what oh, yeah, you know you did Return to Earth and how critical that was. The truth of the matter is if you were the person responsible for designing a screw, okay, or just a little gizmo, or assembling it, or inspecting it, or whatever you did with it, even the tiniest little thing if it didn't work right that could cause a mission to be disastrous. All of those people had critical roles as far as I was concerned and [00:29:00] what an immense achievement it was to have that kind of team, that 400,000 people were involved in that and every one of them as far as I'm concerned was critical.

[Mat Kaplan]: How do you feel about the progress that has been made in STEM careers by women and and other underrepresented groups in the 50 years since then?

[Poppy Northcutt]: Well, I'm I'm pleased that there's been significant, you know, some significant progress, especially if you look at percentages because percentage wise it was pretty close to zero in engineering. It's now up to about eight or nine percent. So it's improved significantly. Certainly the representation of women at NASA in technical roles is improved. We've had flight directors for various missions. Women have been heavily involved in the unmanned missions as well.

[Mat Kaplan]: Very.

[Poppy Northcutt]: So I'm very pleased with that progress. I think it could be better than it is but I'm pleased that we've had some [00:30:00] significant advances. At the same time, the representation of women in computer sciences has gone down. It was about 30% in the 60s and it's dropped down to about 18% now and that's very disappointing because computer science is a... definitely a growth pattern and women need to be involved in that.

[Mat Kaplan]: You certainly have done your part to inspire not just women but I would say women especially, I said we have a surprise guest. You surprised me when you did a little shout out from the stage here at the California Science Center because I turned around to the person that you were pointing to, or who waved her hand, and there was a regular, semi-regular guest on Planetary Radio, Dr. Rosaly Lopes. And she has stuck around with us. Rosaly, can you lean in there? I didn't bring you another microphone for you. Yeah, I'm so glad that you could stick around.

[Rosaly Lopes]: Oh me too.

[Mat Kaplan]: Why was this so important to you, meeting Poppy? [00:31:00]

[Rosaly Lopes]: Well, I was this little girl growing up in Brazil, totally fascinated by the Apollo program. I wanted to be an astronaut until I realized probably at age 8 that I was Brazilian, female, and with terrible eyesight. So that wasn't going to work out. And then I decided, well, I'm going to become a scientist, an astronomer, and I'm going to work on the space program that way. But at the time you didn't really see women working on the space program. I wasn't that discouraged, but I was really encouraged at the time of Apollo 13 when I saw in the newspaper a picture of a pretty young blond woman, and it was Poppy. And the newspaper had a little article about her, the only woman in Mission Control, and you know, and it was kind of sexist we [00:32:00] talked about that.

[Mat Kaplan]: Yeah.

[Rosaly Lopes]: But but that didn't didn't matter to me. She was an incredible inspiration, and I have wanted to meet her for 49 years.

[Mat Kaplan]: And it happened today.

[Rosaly Lopes]: And it happened tonight, yes.

[Mat Kaplan]: And now Poppy as you may have heard or maybe you didn't because she might have been too modest, now she is one of the world's most renowned volcanologists and planetary scientists.

[Poppy Northcutt]: I know that she holds the world's record for the discovery of volcanoes on Io or Io.

[Mat Kaplan]: I can't imagine a better place to to end this conversation other than to say thank you to both of you, to you as well, Rosaly, but especially to you Poppy for taking this extra time this evening, but also for all of that work you did with that huge team to make Apollo something that we can still be so proud of today.

[Poppy Northcutt]: Well, it's a pleasure to be here and I hope that [00:33:00] it does inspire people today to understand that we can do great things. We just have to get together and put our minds to it.

[Mat Kaplan]: Hear, hear. Thank you Poppy. JPL Planetary Scientist and author Rosaly Lopes, with Apollo Program Mission Control Engineer turned attorney and women's rights activist, Poppy Northcutt. As most of you know, Casey Dreier is the Chief Advocate for the Planetary Society advocating for all things space exploration in our nation's capital, or this nation's capital I should say since a lot of you are outside of this nation. He is also a tremendous fan and aficionado of the history of space exploration and most recently the Apollo program. And so Casey, I think it's very appropriate that you have been the person to pull together some great resources on the Planetary Society website.

[Casey Dreier]: Yeah, happy 50th anniversary of Apollo, first off, as we record this we're just days away [00:34:00] from the successful first landing of humans on another world. That's astonishing to me, 50 years before Apollo happened people were flying around in like biplanes, right? 50 years later, they landed on the Moon and fifty years after that, we can't land on the Moon anymore. But a lot of other good things have happened, but it's exciting as it's a really fun thing to look back on and I really enjoyed this process of putting together, pulling together all this great content, new analysis. We have great new imagery, audio, all on our website. It's been a lot of fun.

[Mat Kaplan]: Before we talk about some of those stories that are still coming in from lots of people and I think we're going to invite people to tell us their story of where they were and what they were up to when Apollo was underway, if they're old enough to remember that, there are these pieces about each one of the Apollo missions, right, by our colleague Jason.

[Casey Dreier]: Yeah, our colleague Jason Davis has been putting together these amazing mission summaries. And when I say summaries, you know, they're [00:35:00] detailed timelines, really beautiful curated pictures, resources to the original like press kits and documentation for every crewed Apollo mission, on their 50th Anniversary. So Apollo 7 through 11 right, now 12 will be coming out later this year and we'll be kind of cycling through adding additional mission details throughout next year as well. And so these are just amazing mission pages. If you ever wanted to know what happened on a particular Apollo mission or even I want to add in my little neck of the woods, I put in the marginal cost of every single Apollo mission. So what did it cost to actually do Apollo 11? You can find it on our Apollo mission pages. It's a lot of great content.

[Mat Kaplan]: It's great, great work. And was I right? Are you still taking submissions of people's personal stories?

[Casey Dreier]: Absolutely. We might not get them all posted at the time. But after a few weeks ago, we asked our members to submit their memories and thoughts and reflections on the Apollo 11 landing and I want to emphasize you don't have to be alive to remember your first experience with it. I [00:36:00] wasn't alive, you know, my story is is sitting as a kid at the school library in elementary school clicking on the button on the Encarta CD-ROM on the old Macintosh like LC2 and seeing this tiny little postage stamp-sized video of Neil Armstrong's first steps on the Moon and that was just amazing to me and that's how I experienced it. But we we asked our membership and many many many hundreds of stories way more than I anticipated have been pouring in to [email protected] just the email, hashtag #MyApolloStory. You can post it online. And and we've been collecting those online and you can load through them and see these just fascinating vignettes of slices of life. It's just amazing to me how many people share this experience from around the world literally around the world where people submit from India from Argentina from Spain from various places other in Europe, of course in the United States. Very different types of families and experiences and ways to engage with [00:37:00] this but they all share this common sense of wonder and excitement that something new had happened. It was fascinating to read through them.

[Mat Kaplan]: Just pick one of these to read to us and give us an example of how affecting these are.

[Casey Dreier]: I won't read one directly back into summarize a few of my favorites just because I wanted to leave these to... for people to discover. But one of my charming kind of favorites was this guy he was a young kid living in New York City. He had this eccentric neighbor who bought a color TV, right? This is 1969. Not a lot of color TVs. And was so excited to show off the color on her TV shows to other people she just cranked the color all the way up so everything looked pink. And of course, they didn't broadcast the Moon landing in color isn't black and white, but she had the color tint it up all the way. So he remembers this pink Moon was his experience with Apollo 11 sitting in her apartment watching that, I just thought that was really fun story. And you know this everyone kind of engage in certain way. There's a lot of fun [00:38:00] interesting stories where people they pulled off the side of the road went to this bar and expected to see everyone watching the show, but they had the Moon landing up on a TV, but everyone was more concerned with their you know, Earthly matters just drinking and talking to each other and he was the only one watching the Moon landing in this crowded room of people. Lots of stories of kids staying up late. There's one I particularly liked who begged his parents to wake him up, right? The moonwalk wasn't until pretty late at night. He begged his parents to wake him up. They either didn't or couldn't wake him up for it and he woke up the next day missing the experience and he said he never forgave them and also never forgave Neil and Buzz for waiting so long to walk on the Moon that he was past his bedtime.

[Mat Kaplan]: And yet they had moved up that first moonwalk. Oh, well his his bad luck. You'll forgive me, I hope if I tell my story which I have told on this show before.

[Casey Dreier]: Oh, I'd love to hear it.

[Mat Kaplan]: I was a kid with my father's Super8 movie camera. No sound of course and you can only shoot for what two and a half [00:39:00] minutes at a time. I was parked in front of our black and white television and had it pointed at the screen as a Neil Armstrong came down the ladder and said those immortal words soon to be followed by Buzz Aldrin. And it was of course many years later, decades later, that I was able to share this story with Buzz Aldrin. Buzz, I happened to be at his at his home to record something with him and he disappeared for a couple of minutes. He came back with an 8x10 of the famous portrait of buzz in the space suit standing on the surface of the Moon and you can see Neil taking his picture in the reflection on his visor and Buzz had written on the photo, "Here's what you were shooting with your dad's Super8."

[Casey Dreier]: Awesome. That's a good one. I like that one.

[Mat Kaplan]: I'll have to submit it. I haven't gotten around to it yet.

[Casey Dreier]: You should submit it. Yeah. You can send us the email at [email protected]. We're still collecting them, we'll post them up. But right now I think we have [00:40:00] something like 600 online, you can just explore through on our website at

[Mat Kaplan]: That's it, all of these resources available at Just one more thing that we want to mention Casey and that is a very special little podcast miniseries that you've been hosting.

[Casey Dreier]: Oh, yeah. I'm really excited about this. I'm proud of the work that not not just me, but you and I did together putting this little mini series. It's focused on Apollo, were calling it A Political History of Apollo. It's taking some of the interviews that we did for the Space Policy Edition, all about why Apollo happened, the domestic politics of Apollo, and then of course why we stopped going to the Moon in the United States, and we wrap it together with kind of new interpretive essays by me at the beginning of every episode and really condensing it down into a special maybe five or six episode miniseries. The first two are up right now. You just search for A Political History of Apollo. It's [00:41:00] on every major podcast provider, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, you name it, it's there. And it's a I think it's a great great piece of work and really fascinating addition to all the stuff we're talking about with Apollo, the flags and footprints, the work that people did, the bravery of the astronauts. It's important to remember the political aspect of why it happened and why it stopped and particularly as we look forward to our next step of human exploration, what kind of conditions are the same and what are different now. This podcast will help walk you through that. And, you know, you can start listening now in advance of the anniversary and impress all of your friends on July 20th with all of your esoteric political knowledge of why Apollo happened as well. That's one of the more fun benefits of that, let's say.

[Mat Kaplan]: And don't feel bad. If you don't get the opportunity until after the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moonwalk, the landing and moonwalk, that is coming up on the 20th of July, 2019. Casey, [00:42:00] it is a great piece of work and I'm enjoying working on it. These are wonderful conversations that give terrific insights into everything about Apollo and especially the environment in which it came to be and in which it ended as well.

[Casey Dreier]: Yeah, that's a great way to put it and again you can find that on all the major podcast directories and also at, we link to it there.

[Mat Kaplan]: Thank you, Casey, happy 50th anniversary and happy future space exploration.

[Casey Dreier]: Yeah. I know now we've looked back for a while, let's look ahead. Let's talk about the future next time.

[Mat Kaplan]: I'll see you on the next monthly edition of the Space Policy Edition as well. That's Casey Dreier, Chief Advocate for the Planetary Society and now it's time for What's Up with Bruce Betts. He's the Chief Scientist for the Planetary Society and the Program Manager for LightSail, back with us again for another episode of Planetary Radio. Bruce, what are you going to be doing [00:43:00] on the 50th Anniversary, July 20th, which is still four days away as we speak?

[Bruce Betts]: I'm going to celebrate by driving three and a half hours back to San Luis Obispo to get ready for LightSail 2 sail deployment, which will occur in the day or a few days after that. So it should be fun.

[Mat Kaplan]: I'm hoping that I'll be making that drive, too. Takes me a little bit longer. I'm hoping that you're going to give me good reason to go up there. Are we... is it looking good for deployment?

[Bruce Betts]: It is, but we're working out some issues with the attitude determination control system, which I mentioned last week, and we're getting fixes in place and things are looking better. Whether we'll deploy no earlier than the 21st, but we'll we'll see we don't want to deploy the big sail until we really have our attitude determination control system fully understood.

[Mat Kaplan]: Understandable. And in the meantime keep an eye on because [00:44:00] there are, well, how much of this can I hint at? There are already some great great images some beautiful shots of your in my planet and more to come, I think.

[Bruce Betts]: Indeed. In fact Jason should be putting up a blog the next couple days. So very shortly after people hear this or even before with a couple new images.

[Mat Kaplan]: Our colleague Jason Davis. Alright, what else is up in the night sky?

[Bruce Betts]: We got Jupiter. Jupiter, Jupiter, Jupiter. Still dominating the evening sky in the South, looking like a super bright star brighter than anything else out there. 25 times brighter than Antares, the bright but not nearly as bright star in Scorpius. And then lower in the East you'll find Saturn looking yellowish and not nearly as bright, but with pretty rings if you pull out a telescope. We move onto this week in space history, and I could not find anything interesting that happened this week in space history. [00:45:00] Nothing.

[Mat Kaplan]: Can I give you a hint?

[Bruce Betts]: [mock incredulity] Something happened?!

[Mat Kaplan]: You know, it was a minor blip in history. People left the planet and landed on another world, walked around for a while, came home.

[Bruce Betts]: Huh. Well, apparently that's what happened this week in space history. We move on to Random Space Fact.

[Mat Kaplan]: Oh, that was celebratory.

[Bruce Betts]: Well, I thought it appropriate for the 50th anniversary of whatever happened this week. But speaking whatever happened this week, I've talked before about and I find this very amusing that a mineral that was first found on Moon... Moon, you know, The Moon, was named arma... I can never pronounce it... armalcolite, which is named after Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins. Not in that order. Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins. But what I haven't talked about is another [00:46:00] mineral first found on the Moon, tranquilityite, which was named after Mari Tranquil adata, Sea of Tranquility, the landing-place of Apollo 11, and its other claim to fame is its it was the last mineral brought from the Moon which was first found on the Moon that was then found on Earth. So in Australia where you find all sorts of weird stuff, I know I went there in 2011, they found tranquility-ite naturally occurring on the Earth. There you go. There's your minerals that I can't pronounce segment for Planetary Radio.

[Mat Kaplan]: Have they found selenite yet? Because it has interesting properties a lot like unobtanium.

[Bruce Betts]: Well, I can't discuss that on the air. We go on to the trivia contest and I asked what are the four formal tracking station locations near and dear to my heart for LightSail 2. How'd we do?

[Mat Kaplan]: Pretty good [00:47:00] response on this. I'm surprised it wasn't an even bigger response because of the outstanding prize that we are giving away. I hear that our friend Liam, the inventor of ISS and now LightSail Above, had delivered it to the office so that we'll be able to get it out to this week's winner. It is is certainly one of the coolest gadgets I've ever seen in my life. You can check it out at It basically tells you when the ISS the International Space Station is passing overhead, but it does much more than that. If you hook it up to a monitor, it has all kinds of great stuff coming down from the ISS. Other facts and figures and yeah now LightSail. I think we have a couple of them at the office, Bill Nye has one at home. Very cool little device. So here is the winner of that very cool little device, Benjamin Nettis. Guess where he's from? Midland, Australia.

[Bruce Betts]: You didn't give me a chance to guess.

[Mat Kaplan]: [00:48:00] Well, you probably would have said the Moon or something silly like that.

[Bruce Betts]: Yeah...

[Mat Kaplan]: Who says we never get winners down under? He says, that the four sites were Cal Poly, that's Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to be specific because there are two Cal Poly's, Georgia Tech, Purdue University, and Kawaii Community College, right?

[Bruce Betts]: That is correct.

[Mat Kaplan]: Fantastic. A good on ya, Benjamin. Congratulations. He says he cannot wait for a possible glimpse of LightSail 2 on July 15th. Well, probably not. From the pilbara region of Outback Australia. It should be on a clear 5:00 a.m. start to the day directly overhead. Well guess what Benjamin pretty soon you'll have a neat device to tell you when those passes are going to take place and with any luck LightSail will have spread its wings and it'll be much much easier to see.

[Bruce Betts]: Pretty impossible with [00:49:00] just your eyes to see right now, but if you have a advanced satellite tracking telescope and I don't want to know who you are if you do, then you might be able to see it.

[Mat Kaplan]: So Bruce you thought there were only four tracking sites, four organizations currently tracking LightSail 2?

[Bruce Betts]: Nope. That's why I specified four formal tracking station locations, because we do have amateurs who have been tracking it and we've used some of their data, but what do you have to tell me about, Mat?

[Mat Kaplan]: I'm going to add to that list of informal organizations because according to Mel Powell it's also being tracked by one of the advanced Vulcan Scout ships, but they won't admit it to us for a couple of hundred years.

[Bruce Betts]: See, that I did not know.

[Mat Kaplan]: Live long and sail on photons, Matt and Bruce. And then we continue in this tradition of virtually everybody who enters the contest saying go LightSail, [00:50:00] wishing us good luck with the project. One of those is our poet laureate Dave Fairchild. Cal Poly SLO and Georgia Tech doing the math, are stations for tracking the signals of LightSail's path, plus Kauai Community College, and also a place at Purdue, so LightSail 2 keep on smiling because we're all looking at you. And we got two more, two more poems this week in honor of our little spacecraft. David Duthet from Charlestown, West Virginia, came up with this. If you want to know where solar sails go, someone at one of these schools ought to know, Georgia Tech or Purdue, Kauai Community, too, and Cal Poly San Luis Obis... poo.

[Bruce Betts]: Missed it by that much.

[Mat Kaplan]: There's a blast in the past. Finally, this one. I think this is really delightful. This is [00:51:00] from Gene Luen at Fairchild Air Force Base in the state of Washington. Through a vacuum it moves by light, tracked on Earth by four main sites, safely released from a Raptor's embrace, into an orbit of equatorial trace, WM9XPA, it stated, in language that Sam Maurice created.

[Bruce Betts]: Very nice.

[Mat Kaplan]: I thought so, too. Okay. Well, thank you everybody. We really do appreciate the good wishes and keep them coming because until we get through deployment and Bruce will tell you until we can see if we can raise that orbit by solar sailing, we've still got a ways to go.

[Bruce Betts]: We do but it's working. Got that healthy spacecraft that talks to us all the time. Alright, so back to Apollo 11. Before being named Eagle and Colombia, what were the [00:52:00] Apollo 11 Lunar Module and Command Module named? Go to So what name was used for them before they were named Eagle and Colombia?

[Mat Kaplan]: You have until Wednesday, July 24th at 8:00 a.m. Pacific time to get us the answer to this one. You might just win yourself a 200 point astronomy account on that worldwide network of telescopes, remote operated telescopes, all over this planet. Maybe someday on the Moon too, who knows. By the way, our winner Benjamin this week also got a 200 point account. We'll uh... we'll throw in a Planetary Society kick asteroid rubber asteroid and here's something special in honor of Apollo, the author who is also a curator and space historian at the Air and Space Museum, I have talked with her there Teasel Muir Harmony has written a book published by National Geographic called A History in [00:53:00] 50 Objects, Apollo to The Moon. You basically can follow a lot of the Apollo program through these castoffs, these objects that contributed in one way or another to successfully getting humans to the Moon and back. It's a really fascinating book from NatGeo and author Teasel Muir Harmony. That's it. Happy 50th to you, and I hope to see you at deployment Bruce.

[Bruce Betts]: Thank you, man. May your sails always be filled with light. And for everyone else, go out there look up in the night sky and think about what words you would have spoken if you were the first person to walk on the Moon. Thank you and good night.

[Mat Kaplan]: I suspect for me it would have been something like, hi Mom! I made it!

[Bruce Betts]: Always profound, my friend, always profound.

[Mat Kaplan]: That's Bruce Betts, he is the Chief Scientist of the Planetary Society who [00:54:00] joins us every week here for What's Up. Have you given us a review on Apple Podcasts or iTunes? I'd sure appreciate it. And it only takes a few moments. Planetary Radio is produced by the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California and is made possible by our moonwalking members. MaryLiz Bender is our Associate Producer. Josh Doyle composed our theme, which was arranged and performed by Pieter Schlosser. I'm Mat Kaplan, Ad Astra.

[Buzz Aldrin]: 40 feet, down 2 1/2. Kicking up some dust. 30 feet, 2 1/2 down. Faint shadow. 4 forward. 4 forward. Drifting to the right a little. Okay. Down a half.

[Mission Control]: 30 seconds [of fuel remaining].

[Neil Armstrong]: Forward drift?

[Buzz Aldrin]: Yes. Okay. Contact light. OK, engine stop. ACA - out of DETENT.

[Neil Armstrong]: Out of DETENT.


[Mission Control]: We copy you down, Eagle.

[Neil Armstrong]: Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

[Mission Control]: Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot.