“Somehow, I Participated in That” was written by Troy Eller English, SWE archivist.
Throughout the 1960s, SWE leveraged the public’s captivation with the space program, and the United States’ scientific and technological workforce shortage, to recruit more women into engineering careers. During the Space Symposium for Women at the Air Force Association Convention on Sept. 21, 1962, Society Past President Beatrice Hicks spoke with awe of the challenges and opportunities awaiting women engineers in the space program. Hicks could speak personally to the opportunities available to women in the nation’s space program, because her invention of the gas density switch was used on rockets carrying spacecraft in the early 1960s, an achievement for which she was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Hicks concluded her 1962 speech by declaring, “The saying ‘The world is yours to conquer’ is no longer true. Yours is the universe.”
Several SWE members spoke of their contributions to the exploration of the universe in the 1960s during Profiles of SWE Pioneers Oral History Project interviews. SWE Fellow and 1974 Achievement Award recipient Barbara “Bobbie” Crawford Johnson, an engineer at North American Aviation, clearly recalled that, in 1957, “When the first Sputnik [Soviet satellite] went up, the chief engineer called me in with my director and said to me, ‘Learn all there is to learn about re-entry.’”
While many in the United States saw peril in the Soviets’ rapid advances in satellite and spacecraft technology, Johnson saw opportunity, explaining, “Every time the Russians did something great, I thought it was even greater because we would have to do it, or get to do it.” Johnson was selected to work on North American Aviation’s proposal to design and build the command and service module for the Apollo program, and eventually rose from supervisor of the Apollo entry performance unit in the early 1960s to manager of North American Rockwell’s sprawling 150-person Apollo command and service module systems engineering team by the end of the decade.
SWE Past President, Fellow, and Distinguished Service Award recipient Arminta Harness was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, and chief of the program for the Gemini-Agena target vehicle (GATV) directorate from 1963 through 1967. The GATV was an unmanned spacecraft developed by NASA in the early 1960s to test equipment and practice maneuvers for later flights in NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. In her oral history interview, Harness recalled watching the launch of the Gemini VI unmanned GATV on Oct. 25, 1965. “And you waited, and you waited and you waited,” Harness recalled, “and all you could hear were the controllers saying, ‘No joy, no joy, no joy.’ And the thing had blown up at the edge of space.”
Although horrified by the failure, Harness recalled the sense of purpose it created among the team, noting, “You go back to the drawing board and figure out what happened and see that it doesn’t happen again. And it didn’t.” Harness was ultimately awarded an Air Force Commendation Medal for meritorious service in recognition of her leadership on the Gemini-Agena target vehicle program.
The world was able to watch Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon thanks in part to the work of SWE Past President and Fellow Naomi McAfee, manager of reliability, maintainability, and safety engineering for all Westinghouse Defense and Space Center programs. Amongst her team’s responsibilities was the black-and-white television camera that transmitted images of Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. As she explained in her SWE oral history interview, “It’s hard to describe the anticipation and the anxiety that one felt … that when they did come down and land, or step off of the step onto the moon, that that camera would take the pictures and transmit them back to the earth. And just trying to know that that would work created quite a bit of stress.” But, McAfee continued, “The TV camera worked perfectly, and we saw Neil Armstrong take the first steps on the moon.”
SWE Fellow Ivy Hooks was hired as an aerospace technologist in the space vehicle design branch of the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center in 1963, where she modeled lighting on the moon and flight dynamics for the Apollo program, among other things, before being reassigned to the nascent shuttle program in early 1969. During her SWE oral history interview, Hooks compared her role in the first lunar landing to that of a sailmaker for Christopher Columbus’ ship. “You know, he made the sails up and Columbus went away, and then came back a long time later, but he did get back,” Hooks explained. “And it was an awesome voyage, and new discoveries were made. So if you’d made those sails and saw that ship sail away and come back and had that sense of ‘somehow I participated in that,’ probably that was the same kind of thing.”
In celebration of Harness, Hooks, Johnson, McAfee, and other SWE members who participated in the first lunar landing, SWE released a two-episode series on its Diverse podcast, titled, “One Small Step for Man, One Giant Leap for Woman Engineering Kind.” Each episode features excerpts from these oral history interviews, as well as speeches and articles found in the Society’s archives, housed at the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.
To listen to the podcasts, visit: https://alltogether.swe.org/2019/07/podcast-series-one-small-step-for-man-one-giant-leap-for-woman-engineering-kind.
Read the full oral history interviews at: https://ethw.org/Oral-History:Society_of_Women_Engineers_Oral_Histories