'Giant strides, despite limited budget': Poppy Northcutt, first woman in NASA's mission control, hails Chandrayaan-3

Explains why communication is a big challenge during lunar soft landing

Untitled design - 32 A collage of Frances "Poppy" Northcutt (L) and the Vikram lander of Chandrayaan-3

Eighty-year-old Frances "Poppy" Northcutt is an American engineer and attorney who began her career as a member of the technical staff of NASA's Apollo programme during the space race. During the Apollo 8 mission, she became the first female engineer to work in NASA's Mission Control. Northcutt was hired in 1965 by TRW, an aerospace contractor with NASA in Houston, as a 'computress' for the new Apollo mission.

Northcutt was stationed in the mission planning and analysis room. She and her team designed the return-to-earth trajectory that the Apollo 8 crew followed back from the moon. She was instrumental in identifying mistakes in the plan, including making calculations that lowered the amount of fuel used to swing around the moon. Apollo 8 was the second crewed Apollo spacecraft and became the first crewed mission to ever leave the earth's orbit. It successfully reached the moon, orbited it and returned to earth safely on December 27, 1968.

Northcutt continued working with TRW and NASA for several more years, being an integral part of missions such as Apollo 13. After an oxygen tank exploded on the Apollo 13 mission, Northcutt and other engineers who developed the computer programme stepped in to find a way to get the astronauts home safely. The programme that she worked on was used to compute the manoeuvres used to return the spacecraft. Northcutt and the Mission Operations Team were later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Team Award for their work on Apollo 13.

In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK from Houston in the United States, Northcutt talks about her experiences managing the Apollo missions, especially Apollo 8, the challenges associated with lunar missions and the remarkable success that India and ISRO have achieved despite being late entrants in the space arena.


Q/How was the experience of working in NASA's mission control centre for different Apollo missions?

A/I was the first woman to work in an operational support role at NASA and was part of the team that developed the return-to-earth from the moon computer programme for different Apollo lunar missions. I was not on rolls with NASA but I used to work for a contractor (TRW) who provided services to NASA. At that time most of the people were not on NASA's rolls but used to work for different contractors. Initially we were expected to deliver a programme; people in mission control would then take the programme from us to further conduct different missions.

I worked from the control room for the Apollo 8 mission as they had accelerated the schedule of this mission. We were in a big space race at that time with Russia (erstwhile Soviet Union). Our main objective was to meet the objective of then US President John F. Kennedy to land a man on the moon before the end of the 60s decade. There were also concerns that Soviet Union might be there on the moon before us. All this led to the acceleration of the schedule.

Q/Was it challenging in the mission control room?

A/Many people in the mission control room of NASA did not have the experience to manage such complex manoeuvers especially associated with lunar operations. So we were stationed in the mission control room to help the team with data computing and other aspects related to the lunar missions.

Q/Which according to you was the most challenging Apollo mission?

A/According to me Apollo 8 was the most challenging as it was the first lunar mission with humans on board. It did not land on the moon but was the first crewed spacecraft to successfully orbit the moon and return to earth. Our major concern was that when the spacecraft was on the back side or the dark side of the moon there was no communication with it. It was very scary; if something goes wrong we would not have known about it. They were there on the other side of the moon for around 25 minutes. It was very nerve-wracking thing because if something went wrong, one may not have time to take action.

Q/Why was it nerve-wracking?

(FILE) Poppy Northcutt in the mission control room in Houston (FILE) Poppy Northcutt in the mission control room in Houston

A/At that time we also had very less computer power than we have today. Now you have more power on your smartphones then what they had on their spacecraft then. They did not have any on board capability to calculate manoeuvers on a real-time basis and everything had to be read to them from the mission control room here on earth. When they emerged from the back side of the moon they had to wait for the signal to come back and the tracking data to come in. So if you are in a bad situation, every minute counts. We worked for years to design that computer programme regarding the return to earth trajectory.

Q/What are the challenges of a lunar mission particularly soft landing on the moon?

A/With Chandrayaan-2, India tried to do a soft-landing around four years ago. It lost communication and crashed. Even the Japanese and the UAE tried recently but did not meet with success. Lunar missions—both the crewed and the uncrewed—are extremely challenging. You got to get everything right during a lunar mission and there is no scope for error. Communication is always an issue with a lunar mission—while soft landing on the lunar surface, moon dust might affect some of the devices on the spacecraft. Everything has to work perfectly as there is nobody physically there to monitor the landing. In such a situation every second counts. It is then that the precision of your computer programme and the tracking data count. If there is a bug or malfunction in the programme, it could lead to a crash landing.

Q/What do you think about ISRO's Chandrayaan-3 mission?

A/I am sure that that they have figured out the problems associated with the crash landing of Chandrayaan-2 and have rectified them. It is remarkable to see the success that ISRO has achieved despite working on limited budgets. Though with higher budgets there are chances of faster development. NASA spends enormous amounts of money on its space missions. But I must commend ISRO because despite the Chandrayaan-2 setback they have once again bounced back and churned out Chandrayaan-3 in such less time. Though India was a late entrant in the space race, I must complement the rapid strides and advances ISRO has made as far as space missions are concerned. The only advantage of big budgets is that one can do things and scale much faster. If the rover of the Chandrayaan-3 is successful, it will test a lot of stuff on the moon's surface that will really help in scientific study. Every mission contributes to our knowledge.

Q/Your opinion about the slingshot approach adopted by ISRO for Chandrayaan-3.

A/ISRO's slingshot approach for Chandrayaan-3 is perfect as a fuel-saving technique. It is very economical. At the same time you are increasing the complexity of the computing that goes with such an approach. Earlier, we did not have this kind of computing capability. In human crewed missions one cannot expect to have such complexity to reach the moon as they have to reach the moon faster and then return back.

Q/How was the situation way back in the 1960s?

A/During Apollo missions in the late 1960s we did not not have the experience to understand the the how the human body will be effected by a long duration stay in space, espeicllay under zero gravity conditions along with radiation affects. The living space available for astronauts at that time was very small. Present day space stations are very spacious and astronauts have even space to exercise on board.

Q/After 1972 the US went slow on lunar missions and did not send any more men to the moon? What do you think about this decision?

A/I was very disappointed when they did not carry forward lunar missions post 1972. We had already invested huge amounts of money to reach the moon and carry out successive missions and yet we did not reap the benefits because we shut them down. Now India is headed to the south pole of the moon with Chandrayaan-3 mission as there are indications that there may be water there. If we had continued the Apollo missions we could have done many more missions to the lunar south pole of the moon and explored much more. All the successive missions started getting cheaper than the earlier Apollo missions as you perfected the mistakes in the earlier missions.

Please tell us something about more about yourself.

When I started working in the mission control room of NASA, the opportunities for women were very low in the United States. When I was in college there were expectations from a woman that you would either be a teacher or a nurse. I was able to take a few computer science courses when I was in college. NASA happened to be in Houston, Texas, and I was looking for a job then. I got the job and I was at the right place at the right time. When I started working I started developing interest in lunar missions especially the return-to-earth trajectory. Once the Apollo missions were stopped after 1972, I lost interest in lunar mission. Now I am working as a lawyer and I am active in promoting women's rights. I feel that in the US , women are present in planetary science but their numbers have decreased in computer science field.