Santa Fe woman helped guide man to the moon
When NASA hired Frances “Poppy” Northcutt as a “computeress” in 1965, many credited both NASA and her with breaking down gender walls because she was the first woman to work in the Mission Control program that oversaw Apollo space expeditions.
Northcutt’s hiring helped open the door for other women at the agency, said Santa Fean Charryl Berger, who was a 20-year-old transplant from small-town Minnesota when NASA hired her as a secretary early in 1969.
By the summer of 1969, Berger — then known as Charryl Brewer after she took her first husband’s name — was suddenly transferred to Mission Control to help keep track of the aeronautical directions needed to make the Apollo 11 moonshot a successful mission.
That mission landed astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon 50 years ago Saturday. And Berger, who helped transcribe takeoff and landing instructions on cue cards that the astronauts used during the flight, saw it all happen from a front-row seat.
“It was clearly a moment in history,” said Berger, who has lived in Santa Fe for 30 years. “When they landed on the moon, everyone was standing. I don’t remember being scared [for them]. Enthralled, hopeful, excited, yes. But scared didn’t fit in there.”
Fitting for a woman who said she loves travel and exploration and who knew from a very early age that “life on a farm in Minnesota was not for me.”
Though she attended Bemidji State University in Minnesota for a year, love and marriage took precedence, and she relocated to the Houston area with her husband, William Brewer, who got a job as a technical writer for NASA. She landed work in the secretarial pool, located in the four-story building that also housed the astronauts. She might bump into them in an elevator or exchange a few pleasantries, but she said she never got to know any of them personally.
Her boss, also a woman, pulled her over to the Mission Control building one day and told her she would be typing out the mission plans, despite the fact that she received no training for the new responsibility. The job consisted of wearing headphones and transcribing the back-and-forth orders transmitted over airwaves for the launch and landing of Apollo 9 (March 1969) — the first manned flight of the lunar module — and Apollo 10 (May 1969), a warmup mission for Apollo 11 that orbited the moon but did not land on it.
She recalled being one of the few women in the control building but, as Northcutt has said in recent interviews, never felt she was the target of unwanted sexual advances or comments.
“My entire career has been in male-dominated fields,” she said. “I am sure that somewhere along the way I experienced sexist behavior, but I cannot recall a specific event. In general, I am not sensitive to that behavior. … My strongest supporters were often the men I worked with. They mentored me and promoted my abilities.”
Loretta Hall, an Albuquerque-based author of several books about America’s space program, said that while women were definitely a part of the Apollo 11 mission, the vast majority worked behind the scenes.
“Getting women moved from background positions to more visible positions [like Northcutt’s] was indeed an important step for NASA,” Hall said. “But few of them were operating in jobs that put them inside mission control.”
Despite what for the time was advanced technology for the Apollo missions, Berger said there were a lot of old-fashioned techniques that bemuse her to this day.
“A lot of it was not computerized, but was rudimentary — buttons and knobs and switches,” she said.
The cue cards used by the astronauts, she said, consisted of a lot of “turn this switch on, then press this button and step on this foot pedal” sort of instructions.
Apollo 11 took off July 16 and landed on the moon on the afternoon (by Eastern Standard Time) of July 20. Shortly before 11 p.m. EST, Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface, proclaiming, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Those in the control room exploded with joy, she said: “We cheered, we hugged, we slapped each other on the back.”
She got a kick out of going home after her shift to switch on her television and watch how various news outlets reported the mission. “Quite often what happened was not what was reported on the news,” she said.
She recalls, for instance, a minor misstep when one of the astronauts failed to flip a switch — a direction that was not typed out on a cue card because NASA authorities were assured the astronauts would remember it. As a result, she said, the ship began “gyrating,” but that did not cause problems with the actual mission.
As for the astronauts’ return to Earth days later, Berger said she had one thought on her mind: “Where and when is the splashdown party?” (She and her husband found plenty of them, as it turns out.)
She still treasures a letter that John W. O’Neill, chief of the Flight Planning Bureau at NASA, sent to her Sept. 3, 1969. Among other points, he thanked her for her “significant role in developing and controlling the flight plan. … You have directly helped to send men to the surface of the moon and return them safely to Earth.”
And then the excitement was over. In the fall of 1969, Berger and her husband left Houston for Dayton, Ohio, where he got a job. She returned to college to study biology. She divorced, remarried and worked as a project engineer for a chemical agency before joining Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1989 for a 20-year stint in technology transfer. She also served as an energy adviser to former Gov. Bill Richardson. She retired about 10 years ago and now volunteers in the community and travels as much as possible.
As the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing approaches, the excitement of the times is returning, she said.
“That was a gift,” she said. “I’ve had a charmed life, and that was clearly a highlight of it. It was an ephemeral part of my life that had an impact on me and everybody who was alive at the time.”