NASA Human Spaceflight Historian Jennifer Ross-Nazzal discusses how careers for women have changed over the past 50 years as the workforce has become more diverse.
In 1987 Congress declared March as National Women’s History Month in perpetuity, and a special Presidential Proclamation is issued every year to honor extraordinary achievements of American women. NASA celebrates National Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, recognizing the vital role of generations of women. This year’s National Women’s History Month theme celebrates women who tell the stories of women’s history.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- Women’s contributions to space exploration
- Inspirational impact of the legacy of NASA women
- Perseverance in the face of adversity
Women’s History Month 2023: Celebrating Women Astronauts
Women’s History Month: NASA People
NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project: Dorothy B. “Dottie” Lee
NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project: Kathryn D. Sullivan
NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project: Ivy F. Hooks
NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project: Jamye Flowers Coplin
Change Management (APPEL – vTCM)
Creativity and Innovation (APPEL-vC&I)
The Best Teams: Introverts, Extraverts and Ambiverts (APPEL-vTBT)
Jennifer Ross-Nazzal is the NASA Human Spaceflight Historian. Ross-Nazzal served as NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) Historian from 2004 to 2022 and is an accomplished oral historian. She holds the unique distinction of being a scholar of NASA history and women’s history and has been featured as a subject matter expert in multiple documentaries. Ross-Nazzal is a two-time recipient of the Charles Thomson Prize from the Society for History in the Federal Government for her contributions to NASA’s Wings in Orbit: Scientific and Engineering Legacies of the Space Shuttle and Spacefarers: Images of Astronauts and Cosmonauts in the Heroic Era of Spaceflight. Her latest manuscript published in 2022, Making Space for Women, focuses on the history of JSC through the experiences of its female employees and received the Texas State Historical Association’s Liz Carpenter Award for Best Book on the History of Women. She has a bachelor’s in history and political science from the University of Arizona, master’s degrees in history from New Mexico State University and information science from the University of North Texas, and a doctorate in history from Washington State University.
Jennifer Ross-Nazzal: I want people to understand how occupations changed over the years for women and how women started out as secretaries, but how they eventually moved into different careers and why, how they became astronauts and flight directors.
The work here at NASA was very exciting and new, and I really get that sense from so many of the women that they were excited to work on human spaceflight, that it was something new and unique, and it was more important to focus on that instead of the challenges that they faced.
Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.
I’m Deana Nunley.
During the month of March, NASA joins the celebration of National Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day and pays tribute to the many women who have played an essential role in shaping the history of the agency.
This year, the National Women’s History Month theme celebrates women who tell the stories of women’s history. NASA Human Spaceflight Historian Jennifer Ross-Nazzal captured stories for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project about how careers for women have changed over the years, and she shares a collection of the stories in her book, ‘Making Space for Women.’
Jennifer, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.
Ross-Nazzal: Yeah, thanks for inviting me.
Host: What would you say are the most significant ways that careers for women have evolved over the past 50 years?
Ross-Nazzal: Well, I think the biggest change that we’ve seen, especially within NASA, is that change from women’s work moving into positions of leadership and authority and positions that normally weren’t open to women in the ’60s, such as astronaut, flight director. If you look at the careers women had originally when they worked at NASA, they were primarily administrative employees, secretaries, stenographers, file clerks — a lot of titles that we don’t really see today. We might see the title of administrative assistant, but most of us don’t have secretaries. I don’t know about you, but I do my own secretarial work. I also do all my own travel and my own filing. But really that’s the role that women played within NASA. Most women actually weren’t even in professional positions at the time.
I found an article many, many years ago, which I think sort of shed some light on this in our Roundup, which is our center newspaper, and there were only 882 women working at the center at the time, and only 91 of those women were professionals. So, the majority were secretaries and stenographers. The type of professional fields that women filled at that time were diverse. Of course, we did have some women engineers or mathematicians, people who worked in procurement, but women who were in leadership roles were even a much smaller number. They actually had a management organization where they sent the women up to the University of Houston and offered them a seminar to talk about the obstacles that women faced in leadership. And there were 19 women who were there. That was it, 19 women. So, things have definitely changed. If you look at the Johnson Space Center in particular, we have a female who is the center director now, Vanessa Wyche. We have a woman who’s head of engineering, Julie Kramer White. We have a female head of the Flight Director Office. I mean, things have definitely changed since the ’60s for women.
Host: Yeah, so much change. Through your work with the JSC Oral History Project and then authoring the book, what have you learned about women’s contributions to space exploration?
Ross-Nazzal: One of the things that I think is so interesting about this is when we think of space, who do you think of? Most people think of the early astronauts, Neil Armstrong, John Glenn. At JSC, many people might mention Bob Gilruth, who was our first center director, Chris Kraft, who was the first flight director, Max Faget, who was a spacecraft designer. But most people would be hard-pressed to say a woman’s name. They might say Sally Ride, for instance, but they might be hard-pressed to say anyone else’s name. So, I think what’s interesting is that women did make important contributions to space exploration even in the early years, even if we don’t recognize their names or their contributions.
I mentioned to you that women were primarily filling those clerical positions in the early years, and I used some quotes throughout the book about how important the secretary really was to the organization at the time. They were really like a senior non-commission officer in the military. They had the power. They had the authority of their managers. They knew how to get things done. They really helped people muddle their way through the bureaucracy and the red tape. Obviously, if you offended them, things would get lost. You wouldn’t get your raise or promotion. But I think women (laughter) — well, that’s very true, and that’s something that I learned from my boss when I first started working on the project is to take care of the admins. They can open those doors for you, or they can make sure that those calendars or doors are closed. So, I think that that is really important that women did in fact play an important role. But also, we often don’t think about women and their relationships sometimes to the hardware that we see with all of these vehicles that we have or these facilities. And just a couple of examples to give to you.
One of the women that I featured in the book is known for her work on the space shuttle, and she’s a very interesting woman. She started out as a computer working for NACA. And for those of your listeners who don’t know, originally computers were human beings, and they were women who were mathematicians hired by NACA. And she was working as a computer one day, and Max Faget approached her and told her that she showed promise and he wanted to train her to become an engineer. And she just kind of laughed it off. And it turned out he ended up training her. She became an engineer. She became a subsystem manager on the space shuttle, and she helped design the shuttle’s nose. And that nose is known as Dottie’s Nose as a result of her work. So, every time I look at the space shuttle, I think about her. Before that time, before learning about Dottie’s story, I always thought about Max Faget and the stories associated with him in the space shuttle, but I think it’s so important to think about women and the roles that they had in shaping human spaceflight.
LaRue Burbank, who was not featured in the book, but she’s another woman who played a role. If you ever had the opportunity to come out and look at the historic Apollo Mission Control room, you’ll see computer screens in the front of the room. And she was in charge of making sure those screens were operating so that they could determine where the spacecraft was in orbit.
So, I just think it’s so important to point these details out to people because I think so often we really focus in on the men of human spaceflight. The Apollo years were so exciting. We were going to the Moon, and we think about those people, those individuals. There have been all those exciting movies made about Apollo 13, but we couldn’t have gotten there without some of these women who did important things like knowing where your travel paper was, typing up these memos, coming up with a checklist. All of these things were very important.
Host: Yeah, and these individual stories are so fascinating. Could you share a few more with us?
Ross-Nazzal: Sure. So, one of the favorite stories that I have is from Kathy Sullivan. She is one of the first six women astronauts that was selected in 1978. And the story that I chose to include of Kathy’s was that day that they came to be introduced to the center here in Houston. There were 35 new astronauts that were selected. They came and they sat on the stage here at Johnson. And once they were introduced, they dismissed everyone and said, ‘Now the women and minority astronauts and the rest of the astronauts too [are] available for interviews.’
And she said all of the white guys, the 25 standard white guys as they called them, pretty much had the whole day to themselves. They could go do whatever they wanted. They could go run. They could just enjoy their time. And the minority astronauts that had been selected and the women astronauts spent the entire day with the news media trying to figure out who was a woman astronaut and what was she like. And she describes what was happening at that time.
She said most of the people working in Public Affairs at the time, and the reporters were men. So, they gathered together in the women’s restroom and the Teague Auditorium to sort of catch up like, ‘OK, who did you have? Who did you have? What are they like? What are they after? What are they trying to determine? How far are we going to go?’ Just trying to figure out how they would handle this new concept in their role as being a female astronaut. How would they present themselves? Were they going to have this group approach or a separate approach?
And one of the other things that I really appreciated about her interview and her story was the fact that she was not selected. Sally Ride, as you know, was the first woman astronaut — well, American woman astronaut, I should be more specific — to fly in space. And Kathy Sullivan tells this great story. Of course, she admits that her pride was wounded because she wanted to be the first. She wanted to get that nod, but she didn’t. So, she decided on launch day that she would go out to California and do something that she had been wanting to do.
But then when the crew was supposed to arrive home, they were supposed to land at Kennedy Space Center. And it turns out that they weren’t. They were going to land out at Edwards as tended to be the case early on in the Space Shuttle Program. So, they went through the Astronaut Office and they were looking for a woman astronaut. Any woman astronaut would do, because there were tons of VIPs at Kennedy Space Center. And they grabbed her and said, ‘You’ve got to come with us. We need a woman astronaut because people are looking to meet this really fascinating new young woman who just landed from her first space flight.’ And so she said she arrived there and she looked out at the sea of people, and she said she was quite happy that Sally now would have this opportunity, this chance, to really digest what had happened to her, because of course, the crowds weren’t going to be as large out at Edwards Air Force Base, but she told her, ‘If this is what you get for going first, you can have it.’ So I just think that’s a really kind of funny story when we think about being first.
One of my other favorite stories features Ivy Hooks, who was an engineer who came to JSC in the ’60s, and she tells a wonderful story. I just think, I love it because it’s very humorous. She was working with a number of engineers. She was often the only female engineer. And in this case, she was. She shared an office with several men who had pinups in their office. And around this time, there was the Burt Reynolds centerfold that came out in Cosmopolitan. And so, one of the guys who was working with her said, ‘It’d be really great if Ivy could have her own centerfold. Wouldn’t that be fantastic?’ So, he talked to the department secretary and she got a copy of that centerfold and put it in her office above her desk.
And so, she came back one day and all the guys were gathered around her desk and trying to get her attention, and she looked up and saw it and laughed and asked, ‘Who did it, who did it?’ And she thought it was great and finally figured out who put it up there. But she said a couple weeks later, the deputy director of her division or branch decided it wasn’t nice that men had these pinups anymore, so they had to take them down. But Burt Reynolds got to stay. So, I think that’s kind of funny.
And then just the other story, just because I think it’s so fun, is Jamye Flowers Coplin, who was one of the women working in the Astronaut Office in the ’60s, and she’s just got some great stories. I mean, I can’t even tell all these stories here because there’s so many. But she came to work in the Astronaut Office right out of high school, and she was given the choice of working, I think in Procurement or the Astronaut Office, and she chose to work in the Astronaut Office, but she thought the astronauts worked at Kennedy. She didn’t realize they worked here in Houston. And she said that the first time she met Alan Shepard, her knees were knocking. She didn’t realize she was going to be working with him, but she said it was just this great experience. It was like being a part of a family. In fact, she was young. She was 18 when she started working out here. And oftentimes, the crew secretaries went out for missions, but she wasn’t allowed to go out to the Cape until she turned 21. Alan Shepard told her, ‘You’re not 21. There’s a lot of partying. There’s a lot of drinking going on. So, until you’re 21, you have to stay here.’ So when she turned 21, she got the opportunity to go out for the Apollo 10 mission, and she just tells some other great stories about exchanging Corvettes for the astronauts, babysitting for families. It’s just a very different work environment from the one that we are used to these days.
Host: For sure. How did the women describe their experiences of perseverance in the face of adversity?
Ross-Nazzal: Yes. I think it depends really on who you ask. Some of the women I found just kind of laughed it off. They just thought it was part of their experience, but they were more focused on the task that they had to do at hand.
There is one interview that jumps to mind though, where she really talked about some of the challenges she faced, and that was Anne Accola. She was working in flight operations at the time. She had been riffed and she was brought back and came to work for Gene Kranz, and she tells a very interesting story of sitting by the secretary, and she said guys would walk by and look at her because they didn’t give her anything to do originally. They were trying to figure out what to do with a woman. And so guys would walk by and just look at her like she was sort of an oddity, and she said she actually spoke with two folks and they wanted to know how she wanted to be treated since she was a woman. And she’s like, ‘I just would like to be treated like everyone else.’ It seems like kind of an odd question to ask. But she talked a lot about many of the challenges that she faced, and she called her time working with Gene Kranz as a time where she was constantly butting up against that glass ceiling that she kept getting concussions, for instance, as a result of that time in that office. I think it was very challenging for her. The secretary told her when she was first hired that she wasn’t allowed to quit. She intimated that there had been other women who had been hired, but that no matter what she was to stay even if she had to go into the restroom and cry and come back out. So, I think it’s really interesting.
Carolyn Huntoon, who was our first female center director, admitted that she faced challenges as a woman. For instance, she’s a life science researcher, and she wasn’t allowed to go out on the ships after the Apollo missions because they didn’t allow women on ships at that point. But she admitted there would’ve been challenges wherever she went. She could have worked for the Veterans Administration and encountered these same challenges. But the work here at NASA was very exciting and new. And I really get that sense from so many of the women that they were excited to work on human spaceflight, that it was something new and unique, and it was more important to focus on that instead of the challenges that they faced.
Host: Jennifer, what’s it been like for you as a historian to give these women a platform to tell their story?
Ross-Nazzal: Yeah. Well, it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. I am actually a historian of women, and as you might imagine, I don’t get much of a chance to study women’s history at NASA. Most of my days are eaten up by looking at things like the space shuttle or hardware systems, policy, those sorts of things. So this was something that I’ve always wanted to do. And when I proposed the book project, a lot of the women that I talked with, that I reached out to schedule interviews with were really, really excited about being asked to participate in being in the volume, because it’s not very often that a publication comes out that focuses on women’s work at NASA, especially including some of the women that I included here. Women, for instance, who work in Human Resources and Procurement are often overlooked in lieu of the astronauts or flight controllers, those sorts of folks. But I just really saw a value in sharing women and their work and how women’s occupations have changed over time. I think that was really important. So, I’m glad that it’s finally out.
Host: After compiling so many stories from trailblazing women, how did you select the book’s cover image?
Ross-Nazzal: Yes, so very interesting story as well. I was doing a series of interviews with Michele Brekke, who was selected as the first female flight director here at the Johnson Space Center. She did not end up working as a flight director. Challenger happened, and she decided to move on to become a flight manager. But at the end of our series of interviews, she shared a number of photographs with me, and one of them included that photo that you now see on the cover. And I thought it really encapsulated what I was trying to convey in the book and the ideas behind Making Space for Women.
Just for your listeners who may not have a copy of the book in front of them, let me describe that photo. So, on the front of the book, you see two young women. They’re working in the shuttle mission simulator. One is Michele Brekke and the other is Susan Creasy. And it’s quite cold in the mission simulator, and they have on their shoulders, they have the coats from the STS-2 crew, Joe Engle and Dick Truly. And I think it really captured the whole point of the book that I was trying to convey that the women were accepted. They were a part of that culture. They were just part of the team. They were one of the guys because they were given the opportunity to wear the jackets of the crew. I mean, I just think that that speaks volumes when you pick up the actual book and kind of think about who the readers are and what this book has to say.
Host: Have you observed inspirational impacts of the legacy of these women?
Ross-Nazzal: I think the biggest inspirational impact that I can share with you is just the interest that I’ve had in the book, I’ve given at least one or two talks a month on this book. And I’m amazed every time I go give a talk, how many young girls have a copy of this book. And they talk to me about their interest in the space program and how they’re so excited to read this book because they want to learn more and their parents are there and they want to learn more, and they have a lot of questions for me. I gave a talk at Texas Women’s University in March. I had a young girl who came up to me and asked me, ‘Was Ellen Ochoa in the book? I’m so fascinated by her.’ And I told her she was, and she was just giddy, just so very excited about it.
And there have been other young women who — they want to become astronauts and they’re so interested in the book. I had some parents at the Boerne Book Festival that I went to. Their daughters were five and I think maybe a year and a half, and they bought a copy of the book because they were excited and interested, and they wanted their girls to know about these women. So, that to me is the big takeaway that people are very excited and very hungry for this type of material. And I think a lot of people have this feeling that space is only for astronauts and technical people and engineers. And one of the things that I always try to stress to people is that if you’re interested in NASA or in aerospace, there is room for you at the table. Clearly, they hire historians, attorneys, librarians, graphic designers, pilots. There are women who I feature in this book who are not technical in any way, and I think that really excites people.
Host: Let’s talk about what it takes to capture these stories that impact present and future generations. Could you walk us through the process for capturing stories for recording oral history?
Ross-Nazzal: Sure. So, the process really begins by trying to figure out who you’re going to talk to, what your project is, what your theme is, and inviting them to come talk with you. And in our case, we have evolved over the years. Originally, we recorded our oral histories on digital audio tape, but we learned that technology has evolved and that’s not the most stable format to use. So now everything is electronic. We use audio cards to record our sessions on, although because of the pandemic, we did not get the opportunity to do a lot of face-to-face interviews, so we did a lot of recordings over Teams. So, the audio is not broadcast quality when we do it over Teams, but we feel like the information is still there, and that’s the most important thing that we do.
Of course, before we do an interview, we do a lot of research on individuals, and try and find out as much about them as we can and their careers. We really like to come up with questions that are more than, ‘So you worked at NASA, what did you do?’ And people really appreciate that. I’ve had, and my colleagues have had a lot of experience with people asking us, ‘Well, where did you find that information? Yeah, that’s right. That’s kind of an odd bit of information. I didn’t think anybody else knew that.’ So that’s nice. We like to dive deeply if we can and get those stories other people have not shared in the past.
Of course, the hard part is processing all those interviews. We take the audio off of the audio card that we have or Teams, and we send it off to a transcriber and get them transcribed, and then we edit them and send them back to the interviewee. We give folks the opportunity to edit their transcripts so that they’re happy with the final product, and then we make them available on the Oral History page on the JSC History Portal.
Host: What are some of the most fascinating and memorable moments from interviews that you’ve conducted for the Oral History Project?
Ross-Nazzal: Yeah, I’ve done a number of interviews, but I have to tell you, probably my most favorite interview was with Alan Bean, astronaut Alan Bean, who walked on the Moon for Apollo 12 and also commanded a Skylab mission. For those who don’t know, he also was a painter, and I had the opportunity to speak with him many years ago. We reached out to him, we sent him a letter, and he agreed. So, he said we could come to his house, and he met us at the front door, and he was very insistent we had exactly one hour. And when we do interviews, we try and if interviewees tell us we have a time constraint, we work within those time constraints. We will meet them wherever they’re most comfortable. But the time constraint was very important to me and to him as well. So, we said, ‘Yes, sir. Of course, we will stick to that time.’
And he took us through his house and he sat us down in his studio, his art studio, and you can imagine it’s amazing. There’s paintings everywhere. There’s easels and all of his painting equipment. And so, we sat down. We started doing the interview, and he was very chatty, and probably about 50 minutes went by and I wasn’t able to ask more than one question. And I made a point of showing that I was looking at my watch and we would be sticking to the time that he had allowed. And he said, ‘Hey, look, I’ve been talking a lot and I will answer all your questions.’ And so, we ended up staying maybe 45 minutes beyond that time so I could ask my questions.
We cut off the recorder and he said, ‘Hey, you folks have been great. You came, your equipment worked, and let me give you some books.’ So, he signed some books for us from the Smithsonian Press, and I started asking him questions about paintings in his studio, which he was very excited about and very happy to share. Of course, I’m still waiting. I’m thinking, he only gave me an hour, so someone’s coming or he has to go somewhere. We ended up spending all morning, I think around lunch we left. He told me how he made a boot imprint in his paintings, talked about the use of lunar dust in the paintings to make them special, the use of thread from some of his patches from Apollo and Skylab. He was just very excited to share those details with us, but it’s definitely a memory that will stay with me forever. It was just such a unique opportunity to be in his studio and to have that time with him. I wasn’t expecting it that morning when I came to his studio.
Host: Yeah. What a gem. After someone finishes reading your book, what do you want readers to come away with?
Ross-Nazzal: Yeah, I think the biggest takeaway from the book is that space is for everyone. I think that it’s so important. I think so many people, when I go give talks about NASA, think that you have to be a technical person to work here. And of course, we know that that is not the case. It takes a village to make sure that NASA operates. We couldn’t function without our accountants, without our Procurement people, without all members of our team. But also, there are different components of the book that I think are really important as well.
I want people to understand how occupations changed over the years for women and how women started out as secretaries, but how they eventually moved into different careers and why, how they became astronauts and flight directors. I really envision this book for younger readers, for people thinking about, ‘Hey, maybe I’m interested in NASA. I might look at a career there.’ But I also think people who were early on in their careers might find the book interesting because it gives some good advice on, ‘Hey, I want to make a career jump here, what’s my best strategy?’ Some of the women also talk about their bosses and why they were great bosses and some of the not-so-great bosses, and why. So, I think that wherever you are in your career, there’s something that you could probably take away from the book.
Host: Our thanks to Jennifer for joining us on the podcast. Her bio and links to topics discussed during our conversation are available at appel.nasa.gov/podcast along with a show transcript.
If you have suggestions for future guests or topics on the podcast, please share your idea with us on Twitter at NASA APPEL – that’s app-el– and use the hashtag Small Steps, Giant Leaps.
As always, thanks for listening.