On July 16, 1969, a groundbreaking launch catapulted humankind into history.
The Apollo 11 spacecraft successfully launched from Earth and the crew landed on the moon four days later. More than 400,000 people from around the world helped the mission happen in one form or another but very few of them were women.
It was so rare, in fact, that when NASA released new 70-millimetre film footage and more than 11,000 hours of audio recordings surrounding the launch, one voice stuck out. Film producer Thomas Peterson began going through the data and noticed one woman’s voice, so he had to reach out.
Poppy Northcutt was one of the only women working in Houston on the technical side of things, using her skills as a mathematician to develop the Return To Earth Program. She’d helped devise the calculations for a similar Abort Program for Apollo 8, and would continue to do so for Apollo 12 and 13.
“It was a problem of trying to make it fast enough and accurate,” she said. “There’s just not an equation that you can write to solve the problem because you have so many constraints … it’s about hitting the re-entry corridor so they don’t burn up, about them coming into the right area as well as having the gravitational pull of the earth and the moon.”
Peterson reached out to Northcutt to learn more about her experience, and to see if she was interested in helping to promote a documentary he was co-producing with the new footage. The resulting Apollo 11 documentary just premiered at Victoria’s IMAX theatre, where Northcutt was in attendance.
“It was amazing to watch because when you’re working on these missions, everyone is very specialized so you’re very focused on your thing,” she said. “The view that those who work on it have is entirely different than the one a spectator would have. The spectator’s is much better.”
Watching the launch on film was a good reminder of her experience on the ground in 1969.
“It was just that kind of moment for everyone on the planet,” she said. “People took a lot of pride that human endeavour came forward. It was very fulfilling to know that I worked on something that had to do with that.”
After helping with several other missions, Northcutt turned to women’s advocacy and eventually became a lawyer. She is now semi-retired but continues to work in both fields in her hometown of Houston.
She hopes that many young women will watch the film and be inspired to work in the sciences and pursue their passions.
Apollo 11 is now playing at the IMAX, located in the Royal BC Museum, 675 Belleville St. For more information you can visit imaxvictoria.com.