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Apollo's Hidden Figure. Aired 10:48-11p ET

Aired July 22, 2019 - 22:48   ET



RANDI KAYE, CNN HOST: I'm Randi Kaye, tens of thousands of NASA employees worked on Apollo 11 to put the first man on the moon. You got to meet some of them tonight. One unique individual came to our attention as the film was being researched. It turns out there was only one woman allowed in the control room during the launch.

Her remarkable story has been mostly hidden all these years. She played a critical role and as we learned spending time with her, she remembers it well. Here's her story.


JOHN F. KENNEDY, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other thing, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.


KAYE (voice over): The Space Program in the early 60s was dominated by men. But during the historic launch of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969, one woman stood out in a sea of men in the control room, 28-year-old JoAnn Morgan.


JOANN MORGAN, INSTRUMENTATION CONTROLLER FOR THE APOLLO 11 MISSION: I was the instrumentation controller. The instrumentation controller needs to know is there a problem? If so, I need to tell the right people in the test team.

KAYE (on camera): So, how did you end up the only woman in the firing room during the launch of Apollo 11?

[22:50:10] MORGAN: My Director of Information Systems called me and he said, "You're our best communicator. We're going to have you on the console." Later, I found out he had to go and convince the Center Director, Dr. Kurt Debus that it was going to be okay.

KAYE: Do you think it had to go all the way up to the top for the men that were in the firing room?

MORGAN: Oh, heck no.

KAYE: Exactly.

MORGAN: No. Oh, I don't think so.


KAYE (voice over): Growing up, JoAnn had a love for science and learning.


JEAN HELMS, JOANN MORGAN'S SISTER: JoAnn was an insatiable reader. In fact, she skipped the first grade, she would not want a doll for Christmas. She had much rather have a chemistry set or one of those erector sets or something that she could build or do.


KAYE (voice over): At 17, JoAnn interned at the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency, and went on to become the first female engineer at Cape Canaveral.


KAYE (on camera): So, what was it like when you first started at NASA?

MORGAN: It was pretty intense. It was all men. In a lot of the buildings I worked in, it didn't have ladies restrooms.


KAYE (voice over): Just like the women in the movie "Hidden Figures," JoAnn had to go to a different building or use the men's room.


MORGAN: Sometimes during tests, the guard was just great. He'd come over and say, "You need a little break, I'll police the men's room."

KAYE (on camera): And how'd the guys like that.

MORGAN: Well, they tried not to notice. I didn't really care, if I had to go, I had to go.


KAYE (voice over): When Joanne first started working in the firing room. She also got some obscene phone calls.


MORGAN: One time, when one of them came through, I slammed the phone down. And one of the television operators from the station downstairs came up and he said, "Is something wrong? Is something wrong?" And I said, "Yes." And he said, "The look on your face." He said, "Has there been a death in the family?" I said, "No, an obscene phone call."

But I never let myself feel like an object. I was not going to be an object. You know, I just had too much fearlessness in me to let that be any kind of deterrent.


KAYE (voice over): Roy Tharpe sat next to JoAnn in the firing room.


ROY THARPE, APOLLO 11 CHIEF TEST SUPPORT CONTROLLER: We're all men. And JoAnn was there and she was a looker. You could never pull anything over on her because she would take and cut to pieces because technically, she was extremely competent.

KAYE (on camera): So she held her own with the guys.

THARPE: She held her own. No doubt about it.

KAYE: Were there some men though, who didn't want her in there?

THARPE: Quite. There were some men and we would counsel our guys, but there was no doubt about it. She had the moxie of what it took to be in a position of being the only woman in the firing room for Apollo 11.


ANNOUNCER: We have main engine start. Four, three, two, one, zero. Lift off.

MORGAN: I got to feel the launch, the vibration of the lift off once the shockwave hit the building, the false floor shook, my console show. The Saturn 5 was so slow, it just lumbers and you think, "Oh God, it is never going to get off the ground." It just creeps and creeps, so there's just a little moment of horror like, "Will this thing go?" And then once it's gone, it's like, "Okay, come on engine. You can just burn perfectly for me."

KAYE (on camera): After the Apollo 11 launched, your job was basically over. Where did you watch the actual moon landing?

MORGAN: My husband is a school teacher and he was wanting to go on a fishing trip and go over to Longboat Key on Gulf of Mexico and that evening, we had a great dinner and a bottle of champagne and we went back to watch it on TV with everybody else.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Rocket Tranquility. We copy on the ground. We've got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot.

MORGAN: We were sitting there watching and it was just so dramatic.

NEIL ARMSTRONG, NASA ASTRONAUT: It's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

MORGAN: And my husband looked at me and he said, 'You are going to be in the history books."


KAYE (voice over): After Apollo 11, JoAnn's career took off. Over 45 years from 1958 to 2003, she continued to break barriers and became the first female senior executive at the Kennedy Space Center.


THARPE: When you looked at JoAnn and the way she worked the politics and the way she did things, she had greatness.

KAYE (on camera): Do you think that you would be where you are today without someone like JoAnn Morgan?

SUZY CUNNINGHAM, NASA STRATEGY AND INTEGRATION MANAGER: No, I don't. She was a champion for me. So, she's a huge inspiration to all of us to say that "you can do this."

THARPE: I'm very proud that we got away from too pale, too male, too stale, because JoAnn brought young ladies in, who were very smart, and they held their own. So, I know she can look in the mirror and smile that, "Yes, I did that."

KAYE: You've been described as fearless. How do you feel about that? And where does that come from?

MORGAN: I think that comes from that tiny little child seeing my dad go off to war. And my dad turning around and saying, "Little Joe, you're in charge." Saluted and off he went. And my grandmother said, "I saw you get your bossy on."

KAYE: Did get your bossy on at NASA?

MORGAN: Yes, I did. I had to get my bossy on sometimes. Now, I always played piano. And for many years, I thought I was going to be a piano teacher. But my track changed after my dad moved us to Florida and I saw the rocket launches. That was the hook. I thought, "This is going to change the world I live in. I'm getting in on it."

KAYE: You're retired now in Montana. But there was a point where you actually wanted to retire on Mars.

MORGAN: Well, I thought they should have a geriatric program after that and 15 years ago, I would have been a volunteer.

KAYE: NASA is talking about having a woman walk on the moon by 2024. Does that excite you?

MORGAN: I think it's very appropriate. It's about time.

KAYE: So, when you come outside and you look at the moon at night here, what do you think? MORGAN: Oh, I got to help put 12 people walk on that moon. I love

telling everybody about it, too.