Women in Transportation History: JoAnn Hardin Morgan, NASA Aerospace Engineer

JoAnn Hardin Morgan made history as the first female engineer at NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Merritt Island in Florida. She was also the first woman to serve as a senior executive at KSC.

Morgan was born on December 4, 1940, in the city of Huntsville, Alabama. Her father, Don Hardin, was stationed at that time as a U.S. Army pilot at the Huntsville-area Redstone Arsenal. When Morgan was in high school, her family moved to Florida so that her father could work at Cape Canaveral (southeast of Merritt Island) as an ordnance administrator for the Army’s rocket program. It was during this point in her life that JoAnn Hardin met Larry Morgan, the man who would become her husband.

After graduating from high school in June 1958, JoAnn Hardin Morgan was hired by the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) at Cape Canaveral to work as a civilian engineering aide. In the fall of that year, she enrolled at the University of Florida in Gainesville and studied mathematics there. Morgan spent her summer breaks as a university student continuing to work for ABMA. Her contributions on behalf of that agency included helping to design rocket launch computer systems for NASA’s early flight programs. Morgan ultimately completed her studies at Jacksonville University in Alabama; she earned a bachelor of arts degree in mathematics from that educational institution in 1963.

Morgan subsequently began her pioneering career as an aerospace engineer at KSC. She started out as the only female engineer at that facility. Morgan humorously recounted years later that one of the daily inconveniences of her trailblazing status was that initially she had to go outside the building where she worked to find a women’s restroom. Morgan said “it was a big day” for her when there finally was a women’s restroom installed in the same vicinity of her actual workplace.

One of her most significant and high-profile accomplishments in support of NASA’s human spaceflight programs involved her work in 1969 as an instrumentation controller for the momentous Apollo 11 mission, during which two of its astronauts — Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin — became the first people to walk on the Moon.

Morgan clearly stood out as the only woman among a large number of men in the firing room at KSC during the time in which a Saturn V rocket launched the spacecraft carrying the three Apollo 11 astronauts into the heavens. Morgan later recalled how she ended up being at one of those consoles in the firing room in the first place. She said, “My director of information systems called me and said, ‘You’re our best communicator. We’re going to have you on the console.’” It was only later that Morgan learned that her supervisor had to convince KSC’s initially skeptical director to allow her to be in that room during the launch.

“The Apollo 11 launch was the first launch that I stayed in the firing room all the way through liftoff,” Morgan said in a 2018 interview with Florida Trend magazine. “I had moments when I felt like a goldfish in a bowl, even though I was surrounded by people. It was 500 men and me.”

Roy Tharpe, the chief test support controller for the Apollo 11 mission, sat at a console next to Morgan on that historic day. Tharpe recalled during a 2019 interview with CNN, “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.”

Morgan, who earned her masters of science degree in management from Stanford University in 1977, eventually held several key leadership positions at NASA. During her last several years of service prior to her retirement in 2003, for example, she was that agency’s director of external relations and business development. Morgan was also chief of NASA’s computer services division and, at one point in 2002, briefly served as acting deputy director of KSC.

 In addition, Morgan has received several honors over the years. These honors have included being named a Meritorious Executive by President Bill Clinton in 1995 and 1998. Morgan has also been the recipient of the Society of Women Engineers’ National Upward Mobility Award; and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ J. Tal Webb Award. In 1995, Morgan was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame.

Suzy Cunningham, a longtime employee who now serves the agency as a strategy and integration manager, once worked for Morgan. “She was a champion for me,” Cunningham noted in a 2019 interview with CNN. “JoAnn is a huge ceiling breaker for all the women at Kennedy Space Center. She’s a huge inspiration to all of us to say that ‘You can do this.’”

In her own interview with CNN that same year, Morgan talked about what is sometimes on her mind when she gazes up at the Moon. “I got to help put 12 people to walk on that moon” she said. “And I love telling everybody about it too.” During that interview, Morgan also brought up the possibility of humans someday traveling to Mars. She remarked, “If it happened 15 years ago, I would have been a volunteer.”

Photo Credit: NASA

For more information on JoAnn Hardin Morgan, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JoAnn_H._Morgan

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