March’s Monthly History Milestone: Celebrating Women’s History Month

We all recognize the names of JSC’s male space pioneers: Flight Directors Chris Kraft and Gene Kranz; astronauts Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong; Center Director Bob Gilruth; and Engineering Director Max Faget. Few, however, know the names of JSC’s female trailblazers. Women have played a significant role in JSC’s endeavors since the beginning and in a variety of ways. For instance, eight of the thirty-six people transferred from Langley Research Center to the Space Task Group (STG), the predecessor to the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), were women. In celebration of women’s history month, the JSC History Office commemorates the contributions of three of the Center’s amazing women and invites you to visit the History Portal to read their transcripts and to learn more about other women not included in this short feature.

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Aeronautical engineer Cathy Osgood plots data by hand for upcoming spaceflights.
Catherine T. Osgood began her NASA career as a math aide, or a computer, with the STG in 1959. (In those days NASA employed women as computers, to provide data analysis with the use of calculators and to plot data.) Very few women worked as engineers for NASA at the time. Osgood, who had worked numerical problems with NASA engineers and had a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, eventually became an aeronautical engineer at MSC, where she worked on spacecraft rendezvous. Learning how to dock and rendezvous in space was vital to the lunar landing, and engineers like Osgood gained a critical understanding of rendezvous techniques during the Gemini Project that resulted in the successful Moon landings.

Models of the Space Shuttle and Shuttle Carrier Aircraft surround Ivy Hooks, an expert in separation systems involving the Orbiter/Carrier, solid rocket boosters and external tank.
Models of the Space Shuttle and Shuttle Carrier Aircraft surround Ivy Hooks, an expert in separation systems involving the Orbiter/Carrier, solid rocket boosters and external tank.
Ivy Hooks also held a degree in mathematics when she came to work at MSC in 1963. In April 1969, just a few months shy of the first lunar landing, she became a member of the original design team for the Space Shuttle Orbiter. One of only two female engineers assigned to the group, Hooks and the team spent months working in isolation on a configuration for the orbiter, which—unlike the capsules of earlier generations—would be reusable and land like a plane. They came up with a concept that specified, among other things, the vehicle’s size, weight, how much time the orbiter could spend in space, and how far the vehicle could fly before landing. Hooks even looked at the feasibility of putting air-breathing engines on the Orbiter. In 1978, she received the coveted Arthur S. Fleming Award, which recognizes the work of outstanding federal employees, for her engineering contributions to the shuttle program, particularly her work on the separation of the external tank and solid rocket boosters from the shuttle and separation systems for the orbiter and Shuttle Carrier Aircraft for the Approach and Landing Tests.

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Engineer Dorothy B. Lee sits at her desk holding a model of the Apollo spacecraft.
Dottie Lee started working at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics Langley Memorial Aeronautical Lab in 1948, after completing a degree in mathematics at Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg, Va. She too started out as a computer. When Faget’s secretary went on her honeymoon, Lee filled in for her. On her last day he asked if she wanted to continue working for him. “I thought he was being funny, because I don't type, and I knew that this was the last day and Shirley was returning Monday. I said, ‘Sure,’ in a very flip way,” not realizing he was serious. With that, Faget took her under his wing and trained her to become an engineer.

Years later, before the launch of the space shuttle, Lee, then the Aerothermodynamics Subsystems Manager for the orbiter, attended an Aeronautical Space Advisory Panel at Ames Research Center. The only woman listed on the program and invited to speak, she gave a forty-five minute presentation about the spacecraft’s heat transfer. Afterward she remembered that one of the men who heard her presentation approached her as she packed up her things. “Based on what you have told us today,” he said, “we're going to recommend to the President that we launch the shuttle." That was one of her proudest moments in the space program.

Transcripts for Osgood, Hooks, and Lee can be found at: http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/oral_histories/oral_histories.htm. An additional source of information about women’s history at NASA can be found in the History transcripts: http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/oral_histories/herstory.htm.

A selection of excerpts from interviews and links to the oral history interviews conducted with some of the women who contributed to NASA’s history can be found on the JSC History Portal: http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/special_events/WHM.htm.

Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
Johnson Space Center, Houston

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Updated: 03/06/2012