The Rocket Women of Apollo: JoAnn Morgan, Instrumentation Controller, NASA

JoAnn Morgan,  Instrumentation Controller, Apollo 11 [Credit: Apollo 11 documentary still, NASA]
JoAnn Morgan, Instrumentation Controller, Apollo 11 [Credit: Apollo 11 documentary still, NASA]
Fifty years ago in July 1969, humanity took it’s first steps on the surface of another planetary body. As Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon on 20th July 1969, a team of Rocket Women at NASA were breaking through the glass ceiling to support this historic accomplishment, achieving their own personal firsts for women globally and paving the way for women in science and engineering today.

Rocket Women are thrilled to be featuring the stories of these trailblazing women in a new series: The Rocket Women of Apollo, in collaboration with Megan Harrington.  On watching the 2019 Apollo 11 documentary, Megan was struck by seeing an image of a lone woman working in the firing room during an Apollo launch. This sparked an extensive research exercise which Megan reveals for Rocket Women here:

I finally got to watch the ‘Apollo 11’ documentary [1] and was curious who this was…

In the first three minutes of the documentary, she’s featured front and centre, focused on her work with the same steely-eyed gaze of her peers. It was my impression that there were no women in these types of roles back then (or so I thought). When I started the documentary, I was expecting to see high definition detail of similar scenes: lots of engineers in crisp white shirts with skinny black ties, and the daring astronauts getting to explore a new world. It’s a proud moment in history. But you usually don’t see women as supporting technical personnel in these historic scenes. And this documentary kicks things off featuring a woman sitting alongside (what appears to be) a large group of prominent technical personnel.

Who is she? A writer from Vanity Fair, David Kamp, wondered the same thing, and he went to find out [2].

A glimpse of her is seen in this documentary, but that is only the beginning of her story…

Her name is JoAnn Morgan, and she was the only woman inside the control room for the historic Apollo 11 launch.

Who is she?

Her name is JoAnn Morgan, and she was the only woman inside the control room for the historic Apollo 11 launch. 

KSC Firing Room 1 for Apollo 11, post-launch. Credit: NASA [3].
KSC Firing Room 1 for Apollo 11, post-launch. Credit: NASA [3].

At the time, JoAnn was a 28-year-old instrumentation controller and she was the first woman permitted to be inside the firing room during an Apollo launch. Today, this is what JoAnn is most known for. But her career at NASA spanned over 45 years, and she broke ceiling after ceiling for women involved with the space program.

In addition to being the first woman at NASA to win a Sloan Fellowship, she was the first woman division chief, the first woman senior executive at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), the first woman associate director for KSC, the first woman director of Safety and Mission Assurance…and the list goes on. [3]

She was a trailblazer among trailblazers. 

And I knew nothing about her. So, I posted a thread on Twitter to highlight her role and share any neat facts I could find along the way [4]. Spoiler alert: there were a lot of interesting finds. It grew into a bigger thread than originally planned, and I had some great questions to chase down. This post stitches the story together, and shares additional insight thanks to several contributors. 

How did she get there? 

As a child, JoAnn (Hardin) was a self-described “precocious little kid.” She loved math, science and especially music – so much that she was convinced she would grow up to become a piano teacher. [3]

She skipped the first grade and read all the books in her Huntsville elementary school library. According to CNN, she preferred science experiments and reading Jules Verne over dolls, and her favorite gift was a chemistry set from her dad. [5][6]

“I liked astronomy and field trips to the planetarium, and I loved science fiction,” she recalled. “I always liked experimenting. In the fourth grade I got a chemistry set. I built bombs and blew them up on the patio.” [6]

Chemistry was her dad’s major in college. When he was in the military, he was in ordnance. So, bombs and rockets were commonplace to him. “I was sort of the ringleader of the kids in my neighborhood [who were] experimenting with things,” said JoAnn. One day she mixed some chemicals in a tin can and stuck it between two steps leading to her family’s patio. “The last thing I added was what made it combustible, and I knew it,” she says. “

It wasn’t supposed to go airborne, but bits and pieces did, and it wound up cracking the patio. Our housekeeper kept telling me, ‘You’re gonna be in trouble!’ But when my parents came home – and this was typical of my mother and father – they didn’t fuss at me. My dad said, ‘My goodness, how impressive! Look at that big ol’ crack in our patio!’ They never made me feel hesitant about trying things. Even when my sister and I tried cooking and it didn’t go well, they would always reward us for trying, and being adventurous and experimenting. They taught [us] to clean up [our] mess, but [we] didn’t get punished if there was collateral damage.” [7]

JoAnn’s father, Don Hardin, was a pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II, and her mother, Laverne Hardin, was a statistician during the war [6]. Her dad later supported the US Army’s rocket program, which included a move to Titusville, Florida which happened when JoAnn was a junior in high school. [8]

With the new environment came rocket launches. She and her friends enjoyed watching the launches, but it wasn’t until the day that Explorer 1 had launched that JoAnn’s interest took a pivotal turn. [3]

Explorer 1 was the first satellite to launch from the United States (Jan 31, 1958), and it was instrumental in discovering (what is now known as) the Van Allen radiation belt. The Explorer 1 instrumentation reacted to (what appeared to be) radiation. Thus, Dr. James Van Allen theorized that charged particles were “trapped” in space by Earth’s magnetic field. [3]

It was this discovery that inspired JoAnn to be a part of the space program. [3]

Van Allen Radiation Belts [Credit: NASA]
Van Allen Radiation Belts [Credit: NASA]
She thought, “This is profound knowledge that concerns everyone on our planet.” She was attracted to the concept of new knowledge, and the opportunity for new knowledge. As if an awareness came over her, she realized that “this is going to change the world I live in. And I want to be a part of it.” [3] [9]

An opportunity surfaced for JoAnn when she went to the post office in Titusville. On one side of the door was an FBI’s Most Wanted poster, and on the other side was a small bulletin board that said “Government Jobs.”

On the board was an ad from the Army seeking two “Engineer Aides,” which would be available to two college students over the summer. “The best thing about that ad was that it said ‘students.’ It didn’t say ‘boy’ or ‘girl’.” So it didn’t cross JoAnn’s mind that she potentially couldn’t apply. So she did. [9]

With a strength in math and science, JoAnn was awarded the internship with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at the age of 17. From there, things moved pretty quickly: she graduated from high school on the weekend, went to work for the Army on Monday, and worked her first launch by Friday night. [3]

On her first launch, she got to use a device similar to a telescope to help track the vehicle and assess whether the rocket’s two stages separated properly. [7]

The program JoAnn was supporting was quickly rolled into a brand-new space exploration agency that was forged in response to Soviet advancements (hint: “beep, beep, beep”). The new agency was called the ‘National Aeronautics and Space Administration’ (NASA), established in 1958. 

That year, JoAnn enrolled in the Electrical Engineering program at the University of Florida, with a full academic scholarship. Ultimately, she chose to stay for only three years. “Their engineering program was five years,” she says, “and I didn’t want to be in school that long. I wanted to get out and go to work for NASA. Plus, my sister had transferred to Jacksonville State, and she wanted me to go with her. I stayed there long enough to get a math degree, and I was gone. I didn’t even go to graduation. I headed straight to Cape Canaveral!” [7]

As JoAnn worked in the summers for NASA, and during the school year chipped away at a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics from Jacksonville State University, her potential didn’t go unnoticed.

Dr. Kurt Debus (left) and Dr. Wernher von Braun (right). Credit: NASA.
Dr. Kurt Debus (left) and Dr. Wernher von Braun (right). Credit: NASA.

Dr. Wernher von Braun, chief architect of the Saturn V rocket, along with members of his team recognized the level at which Morgan could contribute to the human spaceflight program. [3]

Dr. Kurt Debus, the first director of KSC, looked at Morgan’s coursework and saw that she had experience writing technical papers, working with data systems, and building computer components (which were not as ubiquitous as they are today.) He provided Morgan with a pathway to certification. A couple of courses later, and JoAnn was certified as a ‘Measurement and Instrumentation Engineer’ and a ‘Data Systems Engineer,’ and she was employed as a Junior Engineer on their team. [3]

“It was just meant to be for me to be in the launching business,” she says. “I’ve got rocket fuel in my blood.” [3]

And from all appearances, that was the perfect summation. Morgan was a talented mathematician, a fantastic communicator and a bona fide engineer. [3]

What was her role in Apollo 11?

At the time of Apollo 11, JoAnn had recently advanced from junior-level controller to a senior-level [2], holding the title of ‘Chief Instrumentation Controller, KSC Technical Support’ [10]. In this position, she earned a seat in the firing room for launch.

Firing Room [Credit: NASA]
Launch Control Room [Credit: NASA]
The ‘firing room’ is another name for the launch control room, and it’s where all personnel were locked-in 20 minutes before liftoff. Why were they locked in? The intent was to eliminate distractions, and allow the team to focus their attention on the countdown. [11]

To get a sense of scale of the firing room, it seated 450 critical personnel, which included technicians, engineers, test conductors, and launch directors. [12]

JoAnn was seated in Area A, Row D, Position #15, here:

LCC Firing Room Positions [Credit NASA Alumni League Florida Chapter [10]]
LCC Firing Room Positions [Credit NASA Alumni League Florida Chapter [10]]

 As Chief Instrumentation Controller for KSC, JoAnn was primarily focused on the guidance computers at the Central Instrumentation Facility (CIF), but she was also responsible for the lightning-detection and fire-detection systems at the launchpad, the operational communications and TV systems, and monitoring the command carrier for any interference. [2]

“Interference” meaning a ship or submarine trying to get on the frequency that NASA was using to send commands to the vehicle. [2]

Wait, what? This happened? Oh, yeah, it happened…

“On Apollo 8, the Russians were offshore with a trawler and submarine,” said JoAnn told Vanity Fair in 2018. “They tried interfering with our transfer of command. They would try to block frequencies so we couldn’t give commands to the pad and the capsule. And it continued some on Apollo 9 and 10.” [2]

”What we had to do is put different antennas on and direct them differently so we could block them from interfering with our command process,” said Morgan. [2]
One of the things NASA had found during early Apollo missions was that when the astronauts would speak, their transmissions would cut out – not completely – but they were unexpectedly “garbled.” With the intricate communications system NASA had, there was no reason that should be happening. So the question was: what was causing it? Initially, they had no idea.

Using their tracking systems, they were able to identify Russian submarines in the area. It was International waters, so the US couldn’t keep them out of there. Given the space race, jamming NASA’s systems certainly would’ve been in Russia’s best interests. So, NASA had to take countermeasures: just before Apollo 11, NASA installed a gigantic surveillance dish on top of Kennedy Space Center’s tallest building to pinpoint the source of any foreign interference. [13] That did the trick, and Apollo 11 launch communications went smoothly. For more technical info on this topic, check out the ‘Apollo Experience Report’ on “S-Band System Signal Design and Analysis” (NASA TN D-6723) [14].

Going full circle, as Chief Instrumentation Controller for KSC, JoAnn helped monitor the command carrier for any foreign interference, which helped Apollo 11 launch without any communications interruptions.

LCC [Credit: Apollo 11 (2019), NASA]
LCC [Credit: Apollo 11 (2019), NASA]
How did others react to her?

While JoAnn was a talented engineer, it didn’t stop prejudice, especially in the sixties.

When she was hired to join the team, JoAnn found out later from colleagues that a meeting was called for everyone on the team…except her. [3]

The room filled and JoAnn’s supervisor, Jim White, explained to the team: [3]

“This is a young lady who wants to be an engineer. You’re to treat her like an engineer. But she’s not your buddy. You call her Ms. Hardin. You’re not to be familiar.”

“Well, can we ask her to make coffee?” someone asked.

“No,” White said. “You don’t ask an engineer to make coffee.”

White wanted to make it perfectly clear to the team: Morgan was a serious engineer, and her being a woman did nothing to affect that. [3]

However, this wasn’t how it always played out.

“I got obscene phone calls on my console a couple of times, and I would just report those to the communications people.” There was one time in particular, that she slammed the phone down after one of those calls. One of the TV operators noticed, from the station downstairs. So, he came up and asked, “Is something wrong?! The look on your face. Has there been a death in the family?” To which JoAnn replied “No, an obscene phone call.” But she never let herself feel like an object. “I was not going to be an object. I just had too much fearlessness in me to let that be any kind of deterrent,” JoAnn told CNN. [5]

Roy Tharpe sat next to Morgan in the firing room as the chief test support controller for Apollo 11. He said to CNN, “You could never pull anything over on her because she would take and cut you to pieces. She was extremely competent.” [5]

This came with practice though.

Even after being a regular in the firing room, JoAnn was being watched on camera by men from Florida to Texas. The firing room had a camera so mission personnel in remote locations could see launch control and follow along with activity. Before an Apollo 8 test, someone would call and bring some report to the data room (which was back behind the firing room).

So, JoAnn would have to get up, run and get the report, and then get back to her console. Eventually, one of the TV technicians called JoAnn and said, “Mrs. Morgan, I feel obliged to tell you this. When you get up and go out, there are some guys who call and ask me to zoom in on you as you walk out. And they say you sure have a good-looking rear end.” [7]

JoAnn thanked the TV technician and told him he needed to share that with his boss. “What if the media got hold of this?” She thought. “Or worse, what if my dad or husband found out? They would beat the tar out of them.” [7]

So, JoAnn started minimizing her time out of her chair. “All these things were just a nuisance. They didn’t enrage me. They just kept me from getting my work done, and I loved my work. I wanted to be 100 percent correct. I was so focused, that when these little twiddly things would come up, it would be like a crab pinching you – just something little to deal with. But I never let it deter me from my mission, which was working for NASA.” [7]

“The worst was, in the old blockhouses, there was no ladies’ restroom, so either the security guard had to clear the men’s room, or I had to walk, just like the ladies in Hidden Figures, to a different building to use the bathroom,” JoAnn told Vanity Fair. [2]

“You have to realize that everywhere I went – if I went to a procedure review, if I went to a post-test critique, almost every single part of my daily work – I’d be the only woman in the room.” [3]

“Sometimes during tests, the guard was just great,” Morgan said. He’d come over and say “You need a little break? I’ll police the men’s room.” The guys tried not to notice. “If I had to go, I had to go!” She said with a laugh to CNN. [5]

If you’re curious what the old blockhouse restrooms looked like, Julia Bergeron shared these photos on Twitter for reference [15]:

Also, if you don’t know what a “blockhouse” is: it’s a concrete-reinforced, domed building that protected personnel from a potential explosion (because they were typically located fairly close to the launchpad). During a launch, it could accommodate 130 people, as well as test and instrumentation equipment. Periscopes afforded views outside the windowless facility. [16]

A United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket is erected on the pad at Space Launch Complex 37 in preparation for the Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) mission. EFT-1 will be the first flight test of NASA's Orion spacecraft. Photo Credit: Matthew Travis / Zero-G News
A United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket is erected on the pad at Space Launch Complex 37 in preparation for the Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) mission. EFT-1 will be the first flight test of NASA’s Orion spacecraft. Photo Credit: Matthew Travis / Zero-G News

This is what the LC-34 blockhouse looked like on the inside:

A packed LC-34 Blockhouse, which included Dr. Wernher von Braun and Dr. Kurt Debus. Credit: NASA
A packed LC-34 Blockhouse, which included Dr. Wernher von Braun and Dr. Kurt Debus. Credit: NASA

It was in one of these blockhouses that JoAnn had one of her more striking interactions.

When JoAnn first started in Blockhouse 34, she came in to get test results from a Saturn IB rocket (which would later support Apollo 1). The acting test supervisor saw her come in, sit down, and go to plug in her headset. He came over and whacked her on the back saying, “We don’t have women working in here,” with a gruff look on his face. So she immediately called her director, Karl Sendler (who had ordered the test results in the first place). Sendler replied, “Oh, don’t listen to him! Plug in your headset and get those test results to me as soon as you can.” [3] [9]

The test director was apparently new to NASA from the Navy, didn’t know who JoAnn was, and was unaware that women supported these roles at NASA. [7]

In response to the treatment of Morgan, others came forward to make it known that JoAnn was accepted.

Rocco Petrone, who presided over the development of the Saturn V launch vehicle and operations, came over later that day and tapped Morgan on the shoulder and said “JoAnn, you are welcome here. Don’t worry about what anything anybody says.” [3] [9]

Rocco Petrone in the Launch Control Center (Apollo 9) Credit: NASA.
Rocco Petrone in the Launch Control Center (Apollo 9) Credit: NASA.

It did happen again though, in another blockhouse, and JoAnn was told, “We don’t have women working in here,” by another test supervisor. But JoAnn got to a point where she was “fearless” and she ignored it, sat down, and did what she was sent there to do: her job. [9]

She held her own with the guys, and JoAnn garnered the support of her peers. But that didn’t stop the media from giving her their opinion.

JoAnn tells Vanity Fair, “One time, we had finished prop load after Apollo 9 or 10, and NASA allowed the media in. They would go down each row. I’ll never forget, one of the rudest remarks I ever got was from one of the photographers. He said, “I wish you could let her go out and put on some lipstick. [2]

Despite the challenges, JoAnn soared passed it with a passion that overrode anything else – the lonely moments, the little bits of negative. “They were like a mosquito bite. You just swat it and push on.” [2]

JoAnn Morgan, Instrumentation Controller, Apollo 11 [Credit: Apollo 11 documentary still, NASA]
JoAnn Morgan, Instrumentation Controller, Apollo 11 [Credit: Apollo 11 documentary still, NASA]
While her support system was growing at work, there was always one person by her side from the beginning: her husband.

At work, JoAnn would get a variety of come-ons as she tells Vanity Fair, ranging from “Oh, can you go to coffee with me?” to “Oh, you never get to see your husband.” But JoAnn’s husband was a great support system. This was especially true in the timeframe between Apollo 8 and Apollo 13. Those five or six years were very intense for Morgan, working 12 to 16 hours a day. There were even times when JoAnn and her husband would basically pass on the street. [2]

That workload was relentless. And in 1967, while trying to help get the Apollo program off the ground, Morgan collapsed in an elevator at KSC. She was pregnant and began hemorrhaging. And as she prefers to say now, that’s the day she and Larry became “parents of an angel.” She miscarried. “I’m sure it was partly due to stress,” she says. “It was one of those pregnancies where I was working right up to the day I lost the baby. They got me to the hospital, but it was too late.” During the summer of 1969, she had worked twenty-eight straight days prior to the launch of Apollo 11. [7]

Her husband, Larry Van Morgan, was a high-school math and science teacher (and bandmaster), and his older sister was a laser physicist. He wasn’t afraid of smart women. And the science stuff didn’t baffle him because he’d been on an aircraft carrier in the Navy. “If I hadn’t had the right kind of husband, that I could come home to and vent and say, ‘Oh, this yahoo in the elevator said…,’ and he’d say, ‘You have to rise above that, JoAnn. You’re doing something important.’ He really encouraged and helped me through.” JoAnn interviewed by Vanity Fair in 2018. [2]

Were there any personal barriers she had to overcome?

When JoAnn started working at the Cape, she brought the independent spirit that her parents had encouraged, but also, the manners of a typical Southern girl in the 1940’s and 1950’s. She said, “Yes, ma’am,” and “No, ma’am,” spoke only when spoken to in the presence of grownups, and obeyed the old creed, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” [7]

That’s the one barrier of her upbringing that she had to overcome in the workplace. And she learned this very early on. [7]

During one of the first summers at the Cape, one of the missile tracking stations had been hit by lightning. JoAnn was tasked with assessing the damage, and determining the path of the lightning. One of the affected areas was a telephone pole outside of the equipment trailer, which had antennas and cables running up and down the pole. JoAnn had to go up the pole and trace the lightning right into the equipment, make an inventory of damaged hardware, and figure out how much it was going to cost to replace the burned or melted hardware. [7]

She did all of that, wrote up her report and gave it to her boss, Jim White. They took that to a meeting with eighteen or twenty people – one of them being a lightning expert that came down from Marshall Spaceflight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville. [7]

“I never said a word during the meeting,” said JoAnn. [7]

Afterward, her boss was furious with JoAnn and said, “You’re the only person who saw it. Speak up!” [7]

JoAnn’s response was, “If they had asked me, I would’ve told them.” [7]

But nobody asked. JoAnn was still a teenager at the time, and – as she was taught – she politely waited to speak until spoken to. “I had to be taught by my boss to forget all that Southern training. He said, ‘When you’ve seen something with your own eyes, it’s your obligation to speak up. That’s your job.’” [7]

That lecture paid off when Morgan was assigned to Sendler’s instrumentation team.

Getting on console for Apollo 11 launch

Even though JoAnn worked all through the Mercury and Gemini programs, and supported all the Apollo launches as a junior controller, Morgan still wasn’t permitted in the firing room at liftoff. Up to this point, she would support the stressful pre-launch operations (like propellant load), and would be excused from the firing room prior to launch. Why? Because women weren’t permitted in the firing room once everyone was locked in. That is, not until Apollo 11. [2] [3] [9]

For Apollo 11, JoAnn’s supervisor spoke with KSC’s Director of Information Systems, Karl Sendler. He said, “I want to put JoAnn on console for liftoff. She’s my best communicator. I get clear information about how things are going. She’s also very disciplined.” Sendler agreed, and then paused, “But we’ve never had her locked in there.” Indeed, having JoAnn locked in the firing room as the only – and first – woman was breaking new ground. It was a change in tradition. So, Sendler ran the request up higher to the KSC Center Director, Dr. Kurt Debus, who approved without hesitation, JoAnn tells Vanity Fair. [2]

When Sendler called JoAnn into his office, he shared the good news: “You’re going to be on the console for Apollo 11!”

The fact that Karl Sendler “went to bat” for her was a pivotal moment for JoAnn in her career. But also, because it said to everyone else: “She’s one of us. She’s part of the team. And she gets to be here to enjoy this part of the countdown and launch.” [9]

An added bonus for JoAnn on Apollo 11 was the fact that JoAnn wouldn’t have to work the night shift (3pm to 3am). For the first time, she would get off work at 3 in the afternoon and spend time with her husband, who she rarely got to see. “I was just thrilled,” she says. “My life was coming together. I would get to be there for the launch, feel the shockwave hit, and then I [would be going] on vacation!” [3]

What were her highlights of Apollo 11?

“Sometimes I say to people, ‘Hey, my biggest decision was: What can I wear so that I don’t stand out like a sore thumb?’ I knew that there was still hostility from some men about having a woman be part of the launch team, but I had been there for years. I had gotten out of college in ’62.

So I wanted to be part of that team, and to blend in. I was a newlywed, and I said to my husband, ‘I don’t know what I should wear.’ And he said, ‘Well, you went to Florida, you’re a Florida Gator, you’ve got that great dress I bought you.’ It was a Lacoste with the little alligator on the chest. Of course, nobody noticed that tiny little gator, but it was a navy dress, and my husband had been in the navy. He always liked me in navy.” JoAnn Morgan tells Vanity Fair in 2018. [2]

JoAnn Morgan on-console [Credit: NASA]
JoAnn Morgan on-console [Credit: NASA]
Oh yeah, and remember the featured shot from the Apollo 11 documentary (below)?

JoAnn Morgan [Image Credit: Apollo 11 documentary (2019), NASA]
JoAnn Morgan [Image Credit: Apollo 11 documentary (2019), NASA]
JoAnn remembers that close-up. It was in a scheduling meeting for Apollo 11 and she vividly remembers that videographer being there. Why? Because cameras weren’t allowed in these meetings where controlled information was being discussed. For Apollo 11, an exception was made to let a camera in to document the historic events, but it was very controlled. And they most certainly weren’t supposed to do close-ups of anyone. So when this one got up close to JoAnn’s face, she said, “Oh boy, I rolled my eyes at him,” being singled out in the moment. [9]

To be the instrumentation controller in the launch room for the Apollo 11 liftoff was a big deal. For JoAnn, to be there for that pivotal point in history was ground-breaking: “It was very validating. It absolutely made my career.” [3]

Perhaps one of the best parts of being there for the Apollo 11 launch was finally being able to ‘feel’ the launch – the rumbling, the building shuddering, the windows rattling, and the shockwave. Up until then, Morgan had always been at a telemetry station, or a display room, or an upper antennae site for launch, and would have to hear from other people about what the launch felt like. For Apollo 11, JoAnn finally had the chance to experience that for herself. [3]

Did she get to see the launch?

In the space business, everyone is very disciplined and focused. If you’re supporting on console for launch, you couldn’t just stop, stand up, and watch the launch. JoAnn had to listen to 21 channels of information, plus monitoring a bunch of displays that the supervisors wanted up for the team to see. So she could feel the launch before seeing much of it. However, JoAnn did get a “peep” of the Saturn V launch from between the louvres on the firing room windows. But she certainly felt the launch; she had her elbow on the chair, and she felt the rumbling at her console. [9]

Apollo 11 mission launch from KSC on July 16, 1969. Credit: NASA.
Apollo 11 mission launch from KSC on July 16, 1969. Credit: NASA.

Morgan enjoyed the Apollo 11 launch from the firing room starting roughly 3 hours prior to countdown, and she stayed there all the way through translunar injection phase (which is the last critical event that launch control supported). In between these events were VIP guests coming in to give remarks, including Vice President Spiro Agnew and President Richard Nixon. This is when the below historic photo was taken, roughly an hour after launch. [2] [9]

KSC Firing Room 1 for Apollo 11, post-launch. Credit: NASA [3].
KSC Firing Room 1 for Apollo 11, post-launch. Credit: NASA [3].
Note: it was pointed out that there are other women in the photo, along the wall in the back, but that’s because the picture was taken nearly an hour after the launch, by which point some back-room staff members were allowed in to hear the speakers. [2]

After the successful launch, JoAnn continued to be one of the busiest in the launch control room for the following two hours. While others started departing their consoles about thirty minutes after the launch, JoAnn had to get damage reports in (e.g., how the systems performed on the ground, how much time it would take to get ready for the next launch, etc.). JoAnn’s team was looking for any off-nominal conditions, like scorched cables that would need to be replaced, any lost communication boxes, or if a lightning antenna blew away.” [7]

After the successful launch, “Several people congratulated me and after launch, the test supervisor – who happened to be [the same one from] Blockhouse 34 – came down and gave me a cigar when he was handing out cigars,” shared JoAnn. [17]

She walked out [of the firing room] that day with Apollo Astronauts Deke Slayton and Alan Shepard, who were about to board a jet for the Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston. [7]

As for the Apollo 11 lunar landing, JoAnn’s job was considered complete.

Launch marks the beginning of the mission. But after the first couple of critical events that the launch team is devoted to (which includes launch through translunar injection), the Mission Control team in Houston takes over. [3]

So, JoAnn and her husband took a boat out to Longboat Key and watched the lunar landing on TV with champagne in hand. After watching the landing, her husband reached over and said, “Hon, you’re gonna be in the history books.” [2]

Credit: Apollo 11 (2019), NASA
Credit: Apollo 11 (2019), NASA

What came after Apollo 11?

After Apollo 11, JoAnn’s career blasted off.

JoAnn continued her success at Kennedy Space Center, and went on to complete a Master of Science in Management at Stanford in 1977 on a Sloan Fellowship. [3]

The Sloan Research Fellowships are awarded annually by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation “to provide support and recognition to early-career scientists and scholars,” and is one of the oldest programs of its kind in the US [18]. JoAnn was the first woman at NASA to win a Sloan Fellowship. [3]

When she returned to NASA two years later, she was promoted to Chief of the Computer Systems Division at KSC.

This was in the late seventies, when the agency was transitioning from using the old, giant computers to using many smaller computers. The change was supplemented with the fact that she was the first woman to have that role: “So, people were having to change and adapt to me and the new technology. So that was a lot to choke on for some people! A double whammy!” [3]

JoAnn Morgan working in the Computer Systems Division at KSC, Credit: NASA [3].
JoAnn Morgan working in the Computer Systems Division at KSC, Credit: NASA [3].
From there, Morgan excelled in many other roles, including Deputy of Expendable Launch Vehicles, Director of Payload Projects Management, and Director of Safety and Mission Assurance. [3]

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA

She was one of the last two people who verified that the Space Shuttle was ready to launch. [3]

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA

And she was the first woman at KSC to serve in an executive position (as Associate Director of KSC). [3]

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA

But what excited JoAnn the most about her contributions was the same thing that inspired her to join the space program in the first place: the scientific discoveries. [3]

“My last mission was those two little plucky Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. That was a lot of fun – getting people to understand there’s a whole future out there, there’s a whole wealth of knowledge NASA can achieve.” [3]

JoAnn served as Director of External Relations and Business Development during her final years at KSC, with a brief stint in 2002 when she was appointed as acting Deputy Director of KSC for several months. [8]

JoAnn Morgan studies posters of space-related news stories in the mobile exhibition when she was the associate director for Advanced Development and Shuttle Upgrades at KSC. Credit: NASA [3].
JoAnn Morgan studies posters of space-related news stories in the mobile exhibition when she was the associate director for Advanced Development and Shuttle Upgrades at KSC. Credit: NASA [3].
Morgan mentored many women, and men, during her more than four decade long career at NASA.

One of JoAnn’s mentees was Dr. Phil Metzger (@DrPhiltill), who shared the following [19]:

“I can add one tiny thing JoAnn did in addition to the many gigantic things described in this thread: she was responsible for me getting a PhD and becoming a planetary scientist.

KSC offered a fellowship for engineers to get PhD’s, and I asked several managers for ideas on what I should propose as a research topic. Mike O’Neal was JoAnn’s deputy. They discussed ideas and suggested I propose to study how rocket exhaust blows soil during lunar landings. I thought that was the coolest idea anybody suggested, so I made that my proposal. JoAnn was on the selection committee, and she selected me for the fellowship.

I don’t know if she even remembers me, but I will always be grateful for her role in creating ‘doctor’ Phil.”

STS-112 Pilot Pamela Melroy (left) and Mission Specialist Sandra Magnus (center) talk to Acting Deputy Director JoAnn Morgan (right) after the crew's return to KSC. Credit: NASA
STS-112 Pilot Pamela Melroy (left) and Mission Specialist Sandra Magnus (center) talk to Acting Deputy Director JoAnn Morgan (right) after the crew’s return to KSC. Credit: NASA

JoAnn was a role model for many, including Charlie Blackwell-Thompson at KSC.

Fun fact: KSC’s Firing Room 1 is now led by Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, the first female launch director at KSC. And she is slated to lead countdown and launch for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1. [17]

The photo of Charlie Blackwell-Thompson and JoAnn Morgan below takes JoAnn’s journey full circle. 

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA

In 1993, JoAnn was interviewed by the Sun Sentinel, and she shared her hopes for the future of spaceflight: [6]

“Twenty years from now, I know where I’d like us to be, but the political environment is very frightening. I think the space station will live up to the intent of what we originally planned, but the potential may not be realized because budget cuts will deprive us of some opportunities.

Twenty years from now, I’d like us to be on our way to Mars and colonizing the moon. In the next 30 to 50 years, there should be enough knowledge to start us on the path of migrating life out of our solar system, which has to happen eventually.”

We’re behind schedule, by JoAnn time. But there’s no denying the next couple of years will be exciting in the spaceflight world.

JoAnn retired in August 2003 with an incredible 45 years of service to NASA.

Her list of accolades and honors are immense, including a Presidential Honor as a Meritorious Executive, being inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame, Exceptional Service Medals and Outstanding Leadership Medals from NASA, and much more. To this day, Morgan is still one of the most decorated women at KSC. [8]

Where is she now?

Retirement from NASA hasn’t stopped JoAnn from helping to pave a path for future generations.

JoAnn was appointed to be a state university trustee by Florida Governor Jeb Bush. While serving as a trustee, Morgan realized how important it was to encourage more women to pursue careers and college programs in STEM. She visits universities to advocate for women in engineering and encourage more opportunities, especially for engineering programs that need more diversity support. She sponsors scholarships at schools with low female enrollment in engineering programs, and has no plans of slowing down. [3] [17]

“Even though I’m almost 80 years old, I’m not giving up,” she says. [3]

Morgan encourages young people to stick with STEM careers even when they are hard work, because the rewards will be worth it in the end. [3]

JoAnn now splits her time between Florida and Montana, but that wasn’t always her plan. There was a time when she wanted to spend her golden years on Mars. “I thought they should have a geriatric program. If it happened 15 years ago, I would have been a volunteer,” she told CNN. [5]

When she watches the moon shine across the lake behind her Montana home, it’s hard not to smile when she thinks of all she’s accomplished. JoAnn Morgan told CNN, “I got to help put 12 people to walk on that moon. And I love telling everybody about it.” [5]


What started as a simple question from the ‘Apollo 11’ documentary turned into an incredible research adventure.

Thank you to everyone that helped track much of this information down, including David Kamp (Vanity Fair), Julia Bergeron (@julia_bergeron), Nina Diamond (Sun Sentinel), and many more. If there are any corrections or comments to add, please share.

Most importantly, to the trailblazer that helped pave the path for generations to come:

Thank you.

Feature written for Rocket Women by Megan Harrington

Works Cited


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *