Episode 3: NASA, Rocket Engines, and the Moon Rock Box
What did Y.Y. actually do as a mechanical engineer? We dive into her work at NASA.
ARCHIVAL TAPE: 1957, year of space and Sputnik dogs… Laika, first space traveler, was ready for the takeoff…
KATIE HAFNER: As the Cold War heated up, the United States and the Soviet Union were in a race to achieve breakthroughs in space exploration.
ARCHIVAL TAPE: The United States space program advanced as the Saturn V rocket was rolled out to…
KATIE HAFNER: The U.S. set its sights on sending humans to the moon…
JOHN F. KENNEDY: We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon…
KATIE HAFNER: Project Apollo was a completely unprecedented undertaking, and to make it happen, NASA hired outside contractors.
YVONNE CLARK: My assignment was to, um, help design the box that brings the samples – the rocks – back from the moon.
KATIE HAFNER: One of those contractors was Yvonne Young Clark.
KATIE HAFNER: I’m Katie Hafner…
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: And I’m Carol Sutton Lewis…
KATIE HAFNER: And this is Lost Women of Science. In this episode, we are diving into the work – what Yvonne Young Clark…
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: …known as Y.Y.…
KATIE HAFNER: …known as Y.Y. – actually did as a mechanical engineer. We’ll look at two designs that Y.Y. worked on while she was at NASA: the F-1 engine of the Saturn V rocket – that’s the rocket that got us to the moon – and the Moon Rock Box, which was used to collect lunar samples.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: We started looking into Y.Y.’s work at NASA to learn about what exactly she did there.
But investigating her time at NASA also opened our eyes to the important and complicated history of the space program…
KATIE HAFNER: So before we can get into Y.Y.'s work with rocketry and materials science, we want to take you back to the early days of NASA…
ARCHIVAL TAPE: Huntsville, Alabama, founded in 18 hundred and five. Just a few years ago, Huntsville was a quiet town. But today, the sound of industry and progress in this community is the bellow of a rocket motor.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: The U.S. army had a post just outside Huntsville, where civilians and army personnel worked on missiles, munitions and rocket design.
ARCHIVAL TAPE: Quiet no longer, Huntsville now is rocket city USA.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Huntsville became rocket city in a pretty surprising way…
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: Huntsville, Alabama, it's worth noting, is this interesting case...
KATIE HAFNER: Dr. Teasel Muir-Harmony is curator of the Apollo Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. We talked to her about NASA’s history.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: The big figure head there is Wernher Von Braun a former Nazi SS officer. And he came to Huntsville with a bunch of German Nazi engineers.
KATIE HAFNER: You heard that right: Nazi engineers. As World War II ended and the Cold War began, the United States started bringing in German scientists to work for the government as part of a top-secret intelligence program called “Operation Paperclip.” The U.S. wanted to capitalize on Nazi weapons technology and keep these scientists out of the hands of the Soviet Union. Wernher von Braun, whose expertise was rockets, was one of the first to arrive, in September, 1945. Ultimately, more than 1,600 German scientists came to the U.S.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: And so Huntsville, Alabama is hugely influenced culturally by all these ex-Nazi engineers who worked on the V2 rocket program in Germany during World War II.
KATIE HAFNER: During the war, it was Germany that had the most advanced rocket technology – that country’s V2 rocket was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile. The construction was overwhelmingly carried out using forced labor, by concentration camp prisoners. In the U.S., von Braun and his team started building on the design for the V2, expanding its range even farther…
This work was the basis for the U.S. space program.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: The space age really began in 1957 with the launch of the first artificial satellite, uh, by the Soviet Union in October of 1957. And that’s Sputnik.
KATIE HAFNER: Just a decade or so earlier, the US and the USSR had been allies during the second world war. But rising tensions led to the Cold War. The successful launch of Sputnik meant that now, it was the Soviets that had more advanced technology than the Americans.
In 1958, NASA – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – was created.
ARCHIVAL TAPE (JOHN F. KENNEDY): I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.
KATIE HAFNER: On May 25th, 1961, President John F. Kennedy presented Project Apollo and the objective of a lunar landing with a human crew to a joint session of Congress and the public.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: It was an extraordinarily bold and ambitious goal. When he did that, the United States only had 15 minutes of human space flight experience.
KATIE HAFNER: Astronaut Alan Shepard had successfully gone to space and back – but he wasn’t the first human to do that. The USSR had sent Yuri Gagarin to space a month earlier. So for Kennedy, Project Apollo wasn’t just about going to space…
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: Kennedy wasn't a space enthusiast. He didn't support Apollo because he dreamed of space flight. But he saw sort of the, the important political potential.
KATIE HAFNER: In her book, Operation Moonglow, Teasel explains the political history of Project Apollo. Landing on the moon could help shore up U.S. international influence.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: Kennedy thought that this was the type of program that could win the hearts and minds of the world public, um, which he saw was going to be critical to U.S. national strength in that very particular Cold War moment.
KATIE HAFNER: And part of that strategy, according to Teasel, included using the space program to expand civil rights domestically.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: Also there is a sort of an important thread, this idea that the space program could help advance U.S. civil rights and that it could be a means for helping to integrate the South, um, and providing job opportunities for African Americans.
KATIE HAFNER: For context, just days before Apollo was announced, the Freedom Riders, a group of demonstrators protesting segregation in the South, were attacked by a white mob in Montgomery, Alabama.
Project Apollo offered an opportunity to both present a different image of the United States and to actively promote integration in the South.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: And so there were particular recruitment efforts by NASA to help recruit African American engineers.
KATIE HAFNER: But Teasel Muir-Harmony says the numbers weren’t huge.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: For African Americans in the Apollo program, I think it was 1.5 to three percent of the NASA workforce. And women were two to three. So you can imagine how small the numbers are for African American women.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: It’s pretty clear Y.Y. was one of the very, very few.
KATIE HAFNER: But that doesn’t mean she was alone. Multiple efforts are underway now to highlight the work of the diverse scientists, engineers, mathematicians and technicians who contributed to the space program. Some of their stories have been told in the book and the movie Hidden Figures.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: And some of them, like Y.Y.’s, are only now being told…
At this point, Y.Y. was teaching mechanical engineering at Tennessee State University. That meant she had summer breaks, and she was available to do other work…
In 1962, Y.Y. headed to Huntsville to start a job at Redstone Arsenal, a garrison for various government departments. Redstone was where the army was doing its rocket research.
YVONNE CLARK: Oh, wow. That was a rough one that summer.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: She worked as a mechanical engineer in the Dynamic Analysis Branch.
YVONNE CLARK: They had me doing six degrees of freedom.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: We talked about this in the last episode. The six degrees are all the ways an object can move through space. Y.Y. was now applying that principle to missiles and rockets, calculating their potential movements.
YVONNE CLARK: And that was my first encounter with the government at that level.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: It also meant that Y.Y. had broken her third and last “never”: never work for the government.
But breaking that last never opened up more opportunities.
The next summer, in 1963, Y.Y. was hired at the recently-established George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, also based near Huntsville. She’d already been working on missiles and rockets in her previous posting, so she was in her element. And unsurprisingly, she was asked to troubleshoot…
YVONNE CLARK: We were having hotspots. So my assignment was to find out what causes the hotspots.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: A hot spot is exactly what it sounds like: a section of a rocket or engine that gets too hot. The rocket Y.Y. was working on was the Saturn V, still the largest rocket ever built.
But what exactly did work on these “hot spots” entail? And how did the hot spot problem fit into the bigger picture of Project Apollo?
COLLEEN ANDERSON: I was trying to figure out exactly the work that she did with NASA. I was in contact with the NASA archives down in Huntsville, where she worked on the Saturn V rocket…
KATIE HAFNER: Dr. Colleen Anderson is a colleague of Teasel Muir-Harmony’s. She’s the curator for rockets and missiles after 1945 at the National Air and Space Museum.
COLLEEN ANDERSON: …and they don't have any documentation saved about the work that she, she did with them.
KATIE HAFNER: Which means we’ve had to piece a lot of this together from Y.Y.’s own recollections. As Colleen tells us…
COLLEEN ANDERSON: I think there's a lot that was written that was quite good about, you know, the technical history of what things are and how they were built, but who built them, why they built them, uh, has kind of been overlooked.
KATIE HAFNER: It’s also important to remember that Y.Y. was one contractor among many. So, to figure out what she was doing, we’ve had to put it into context…
COLLEEN ANDERSON: So it seems like given the timing of when, uh, she was at Huntsville working on this problem on the hotspots, this is the same time that engineers and I think it's a team of many, many, engineers, were trying to figure out the problem of the instability, the combustion instability.
KATIE HAFNER: Given that Y.Y. joined the project in 1963, it’s likely that her hot spot assignment was one small part of a much bigger problem. And that big problem was combustion instability.
Rockets – and missiles, for that matter – work by using combustion reactions.
The fuel, which could be kerosene or hydrogen or some other hydrocarbon, is ignited in the chamber of the engine. It reacts with oxygen and burns. That’s what a combustion reaction is.
But combustion alone wouldn’t get your rocket to space, or even very far off the ground. The real power comes from the byproduct of combustion – the super hot gases it creates – and how those gases are harnessed by the rocket’s design to propel it forward.
When combustion happens in a small space, like the chamber of a rocket engine, the hot gas expands rapidly. This builds up a whole lot of pressure that has to go somewhere. In a rocket, it’s forced out through a small nozzle. This is what produces thrust, the force that propels the rocket forward.
The problem NASA was having with the Saturn V was that the combustion reaction in the engine was basically getting out of hand.
COLLEEN ANDERSON: When the kerosene and the liquid oxygen were reacting in the main chamber, it was creating these pressure waves.
KATIE HAFNER: When scientists use combustion to power a rocket, they need to produce heat for power. But NASA was now facing a problem where the fuel was getting so hot and producing so much pressure, it was actually creating pressure changes that caused violent vibrations…
COLLEEN ANDERSON: These pressure changes would periodically move through the engine.
KATIE HAFNER: In smaller rockets, this wouldn’t have been that big of an issue – the pressure waves couldn’t build up, or the engine ran out of fuel before any real damage could occur. But the scale in this project was unprecedented. The Saturn V was a huge rocket. And it used some incredibly powerful engines…
COLLEEN ANDERSON: One of the engines used on the Saturn I is called the F1.
KATIE HAFNER: The F1 was the most powerful engine of its kind.
COLLEEN ANDERSON: The initial idea was that it would have a million pounds of thrust…
KATIE HAFNER: And the plan was to use five of these engines. All together, that was an unbelievable amount of power.
COLLEEN ANDERSON: The power of the F1s was about 80 Hoover dams.
KATIE HAFNER: With the size of the huge F-1s in the Saturn V, combustion instability was a big problem. When NASA tested the engine, violent vibrations would build up in the chamber…
COLLEEN ANDERSON: These could be incredibly destructive within less than a second. It could burn through the thrust chamber.
KATIE HAFNER: By 1963, when Y.Y. was back in Huntsville, NASA had already lost three F1 engines during testing because of combustion instability. That is a lot of work and money straight down the drain.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Combustion instability was a grave concern at NASA. And the cause of it was complicated. There were so many variables – the type of fuel, the pressure inside the chamber, the body and design of the rocket. And the occurrence of combustion instability was difficult to predict in any meaningful way. NASA feared the F1 engine, with its massive size and extraordinary power, would never get off the ground. They turned to multiple government contractors to investigate the issue.
MILTON CLARK: When they initially test fired at the F1 engine, um, they were getting hot spots, and the concern was burn through, the metal fatiguing…
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: That’s Milton Clark, Y.Y.’s son. He’s done some research on his mother’s work at NASA.
So NASA wanted to fix those hot spots in the F1 engine. And that’s where Y.Y. came in.
MILTON CLARK: So her reputation in industry was that of a troubleshooter, which was why she was given that assignment.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: According to accounts from both Y.Y. and Milton, engineers had noticed that parts of the engine seemed to be overheating.
MILTON CLARK: Her job was to figure out why they were getting those readings.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: They were getting these temperature readings using thermocouple sensors. All you need to know about thermocouple sensors is that they’re a type of thermometer, and they use metal wires to take the readings.
Y.Y. was instructed to figure out what was wrong with the F1 design – why it was producing these hot spots.
YVONNE CLARK: So I went through all of this mathematics, all of these designs, everything. I said, I can't find anything wrong with the design.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: And this is where Y.Y.’s troubleshooting really comes into play.
Remember in the last episode when she decided to zoom in on the plans for the canon at Frankford Arsenal? By the time she had gotten a clear picture of the firing mechanism – which no one else had bothered to do – she had solved the problem. Y.Y. used the same logic now: if a problem seemed impossible to solve, someone wasn’t looking at it right.
She called the team in Florida that was running the tests.
YVONNE CLARK: I asked them specific questions and got some specific answers.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: And she found out…
YVONNE CLARK: The guy in the field had forgotten to put the covers and tighten them on the wires.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: This meant that the metal wires that were supposed to be measuring the surface temperature of the body of the engine were instead…
YVONNE CLARK: …absorbing the heat from the ignition. And that was giving us the hotspots.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Basically, the problem was not in the rocket. Y.Y. concluded that the elevated temperature readings were not due to the existence of hot spots, but due to the way the sensor itself had been installed.
Y.Y. had a gift for reducing seemingly complex problems to their essence.
KATIE HAFNER: To Y.Y., the right answer had to start with the right question. She didn’t solve the problem, she solved the question.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: So Y.Y. started by getting the whole picture.
KATIE HAFNER: She prioritized figuring out what was really going on. And often, when she did this, the solution was staring right back at her.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: It took a few more years to solve the combustion instability problem with the F1 engine. Ultimately, NASA installed “baffles,” copper dividers that would absorb the vibrations and stabilize the engine. By 1966, the F1 engine passed inspection, and NASA was ready to move forward with test launching the Saturn V.
MILTON CLARK: The only time I, quote, missed my mother were during the summers.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: That’s Milton again.
MILTON CLARK: Because she would get up at four in the morning on Monday morning, drive to Huntsville, be there all week and then come back on Friday night, around 7:30.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: He was about six years old when his mom started working with NASA in Huntsville.
MILTON CLARK: And so during the summers, it was just dad and me.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Milton would soon learn what his mom was up to while he and his dad were at home.…
MILTON CLARK: Mom brought back a model of the Saturn V before it was technically unveiled from Huntsville. So I was just thrilled that we were involved with it.
KATIE HAFNER: Coming up, Y.Y.’s work takes flight.
MILTON CLARK: We watched every single launch. When that engine ignited, it was like looking at the sun.
ARCHIVAL TAPE: 1967 marked the end of the first decade since Sputnik. It was an eventful year in space, a year when this country's biggest rocket was flown for the first time…
KATIE HAFNER: In November of 1967, NASA launched the first Saturn V rocket from Cape Kennedy – now the Kennedy Space Center – in Florida.
With confidence in the Saturn V design, the U.S. moved on to its next goal: using the rocket to land on the moon.
This time, they’d have to do more than just get off the ground – they’d have to transport human beings to the moon and back, conduct research, collect samples…
YVONNE CLARK: My assignment was to, um, help design the box that brings the samples back from the moon.
KATIE HAFNER: In 1966, Y.Y. joined a team in Houston to work on the Apollo Lunar Sample Return Container. AKA: the rock box.
Collecting samples was a major part of what the U.S. hoped to accomplish with the moon landing. And NASA needed a container that could safely transport those samples back to Earth.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: So, the rock box…
KATIE HAFNER: That’s Teasel Muir-Harmony again. I asked her to describe the box.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: It looks a lot like a suitcase. It's about the size of a suitcase, made of aluminum and steel, primarily…
KATIE HAFNER: A carry on? Or a…
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: A carry on. I think it's about, um, 19 inches by 11 inches by eight inches. Around that.
KATIE HAFNER: The box itself looks pretty straightforward – it's an aluminum case. But the design had to account for a lot...
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: Part of the engineering knowledge that had to go into this design, um, is understanding, temperature fluctuation and, um, materials science.
KATIE HAFNER: Y.Y. and the rest of the design team needed to know a lot about how different materials would handle the journey to and from the moon. One big factor was dramatic temperature changes.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: When you're in the sun on the moon, it can get quite hot. When you're in the shadow, it can get really quite cold.
KATIE HAFNER: The earth's atmosphere evens out the difference between sunlight and shadow. But the moon has virtually no atmosphere. Temperatures range from as low as -410 degrees Fahrenheit to a scorching 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
The design team had to figure out how to keep temperatures stable in the rock box.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: And so they made these rock boxes reflective.
KATIE HAFNER: This is similar to the principle behind those shiny emergency blankets that they use to trap heat. To deal with the cold, they decided to use a highly polished aluminum surface. But regulating temperature was only one aspect of the design problem…
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: One of the most difficult, uh, design features in it was ensuring that it would, that there would be a vacuum inside the, the rock box.
KATIE HAFNER: A vacuum is a space devoid of any matter – there’s nothing there. And that was important for the rock box because of all the different conditions the box would have to handle.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: They wanted to make sure that they could vacuum seal it before it left earth. ‘Cause they wanted to make sure it wouldn't get contaminated on the way to the moon on the launch pad.
KATIE HAFNER: And “contaminated” doesn’t just mean by solid particles…If air got into the box on earth, it would suddenly be released when astronauts attempted to open the box on the moon. Think about opening a can of soda and hearing that hiss – that’s a mild version of what would happen. NASA didn’t want to take that risk. They wanted to control as many conditions as they could. A vacuum seal would reduce the pressure difference between the inside and the outside of the box, so the astronauts could open it without incident.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: And then they had to ensure that it could be vacuum sealed on the lunar surface and would remain so all the way back to the Earth.
KATIE HAFNER: Since the astronauts also needed to be able to reseal the box on the moon, the engineers came up with a three part system for the seal…
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: There are two O-rings.
KATIE HAFNER: Those are gaskets that look like the kind that are usually used to seal a water bottle. So there were two of these O-rings in the seal – these ensured the box stayed vacuum sealed on the way to the moon.
For the journey back, the astronauts had to reseal the box – and on the moon, they would have limited dexterity. So the design team had to come up with a way the astronauts could vacuum seal the box by simply closing it. For this, they created what’s called a knife’s edge seal.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: A very clever design that was made with a metal blade which cuts into a soft metal.
KATIE HAFNER: When the astronauts closed the box, the rigid blade would slice into the softer metal…kind of like a knife embedded in a stick of butter.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: And that would provide another seal.
KATIE HAFNER: To safely store the samples, the box was lined with packing material, made of…
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: …aluminum mesh to, to ensure that, um, the rocks don't get broken up because another factor they had to take into consideration was vibration, and they didn't want the rocks to break apart on the way back to Earth.
KATIE HAFNER: If the astronauts did it right, the hope was that when they arrived back on Earth, the samples would be in about the same conditions that they were in on the moon.
From 1969 to 1972, over six missions, Apollo crews returned 2,200 samples from six landing sites on the moon. That’s nearly 850 pounds of rocks, dust, pebbles, core samples, and soil. The boxes that were built to carry all that were in part designed by Y.Y. Clark.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Milton tells me that the Clarks had a rocket launch ritual.
MILTON CLARK: What was kind of neat is that these were bonding moments for the family, because we knew that we had skin in the game
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: The Clarks were watching Y.Y.’s work in action – the F1s that she worked on powered the rocket, which carried the rock boxes that she helped design.
Every time a launch was happening, Milton says he got to stay home from school, or get picked up early. Carol hadn’t been born at this point, so it was just Milton and his parents. Milton was in charge of preparing TV dinners for the family. And then everyone would post up in front of the television for the launch….
MILTON CLARK: We had a, a chair, a deep cushion chair, directly in front of the TV. Then we had a sofa that was against one wall.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Milton remembers one launch in particular. He doesn’t remember which one it was, but for whatever reason, this day stood out to him.
MILTON CLARK: Usually dad sat in the chair, but on this particular occasion, mom wanted to sit in the chair and dad said, sure, go ahead. As they would do the countdown…
ARCHIVAL TAPE: 30 seconds and counting…
MILTON CLARK: …there was that sense of anticipation.
ARCHIVAL TAPE: Astronauts report it feels good. T-minus 25 seconds…
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: The launch consisted of multiple stages, with different engines. The first stage was getting the rocket off the ground. This required the most thrust – it had to get the rocket and all of its engines from the launch pad to a height of about 40 miles. And that’s the stage that used the F1s – the engines Y.Y. had worked on.
ARCHIVAL TAPE: 12, 11, 10, nine, ignition sequence starts, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero…
MILTON CLARK: Once it ignited and got off the pad, there was always what I called this, this Tiger Woods kind of “yes.”
ARCHIVAL TAPE: Lift off! We have a lift off.
MILTON CLARK: And the one thing that's amazing about that engine is it never had an operational failure.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: The F1 engines successfully powered six missions to the moon. On each mission, the astronauts carried two rock boxes to collect samples.
MILTON CLARK: It is a little mind boggling that this woman who has done so much is just my mom. You know, there is still that, for lack of a better phrase, little boy in me that is marveling that I got to live with a history-making woman.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Watching these launches, Y.Y. was seeing her own work realized. And that work continues to influence the space program today.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: I get calls from people working on the Artemis program today, uh, asking questions about the Apollo program.
KATIE HAFNER: That’s Teasel again.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: And, um, they’re learning lessons from the Apollo program, still.
KATIE HAFNER: NASA’s Artemis Program aims to land the first humans on the moon since Apollo.
We’re recording this podcast in early September, and the scheduled launch of Artemis I, the first of three rockets, has been delayed twice – most recently, due to a fuel leak. NASA is currently in the process of troubleshooting the problem. It’s a reminder that space travel remains extraordinarily difficult and delicate.
Teasel gets calls from people working on Artemis today because Apollo was such a phenomenal success.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: It was a massive national mobilization on the scale of a war except aimed at the moon. By the mid 1960s, 400,000 people were working on that project.
KATIE HAFNER: But the actual staff at NASA was relatively small because…
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: Around 94% of those people worked in industry and at universities.
KATIE HAFNER: …so not directly for NASA. And this made Apollo…
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: The largest civilian technological program in history.
KATIE HAFNER: The cost was also huge.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: At the time it was estimated to be about $25 billion. Today, there's, there's recent analysis that suggests the lunar effort would be roughly $280 billion.
KATIE HAFNER: …and given the price tag…
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: Less than half the country supported the Apollo program. It was only around the first lunar landing mission that you get over 50% of Americans think that the nation should be investing in lunar exploration.
KATIE HAFNER: This was the late 1960s, and the U.S. was entangled in something else costly and controversial: the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, the government was seen as neglecting glaring problems right at home; many Americans couldn’t afford to pay for basic needs. Civil rights activists saw connections between racism, militarism, and economic injustice. They mobilized to fight poverty, organizing the Poor People’s Campaign.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: During the lead up to the launch of the first lunar landing mission, Apollo 11, in the summer of 1969, the Poor People's Campaign led a protest to shed some light on some of the issues that people were experiencing.
KATIE HAFNER: They wanted the government to prioritize pressing social issues. So more than 100 protesters arrived at Kennedy Space Center the day before the launch. They marched to the gates, holding signs that read: “12 dollars a day to feed an astronaut. We could feed a starving child for 8.”
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: One of the critiques was that the nation really should be investing in things like housing and civil rights and education.
KATIE HAFNER: The protestors actually ended up meeting with the administrator of NASA, who told them:
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: If I didn't push the button uh, to send this rocket to the moon and it would solve Earth's problems, you know, I wouldn't push it, but, um, it won't do that.
KATIE HAFNER: To show he was serious about a partnership on earth, he invited the protestors to view the launch... and they did.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: The successful landing did eventually shift some public opinion. But for lots of people, this shining example of what the United States and liberal democracy could achieve was just a glaring reminder of everything the country chose to ignore.
The protest by the Poor People's Campaign isn't usually part of the story we get about Project Apollo.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: And it really illustrates that the Apollo program did not happen in a vacuum.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: We don’t know Y.Y.’s thoughts on the cost of Apollo. But her work at NASA was probably the surest way for her to keep one foot in industry. And for so many Black scientists working in the 60s and 70s, NASA opened opportunities. To some politicians and policy makers, including President Lyndon B. Johnson, this was part of the mission. Teasel says Johnson thought of the space program as…
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: The launchpad for a great society and he saw the Apollo program and this investment, this major investment of federal dollars as something that would, um, help lift up the country, help lead to improvement.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: In the coming years, NASA would actually bring lessons from space home.
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: There are a number of ways that NASA technology was applied to urban conditions. One of the notable ones was water filtration.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Without access to water in space, the astronauts needed new ways to recycle and purify water. Water filtration and other quote “spinoff” technologies were seen as ways to improve life here on Earth.
But Teasel tells us…
TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: When it comes to the application of those technologies to solve urban problems, I think it was quite limited.
And although there were those efforts, um, made, in the 1970s, I don't think they led to widespread change or really impacted the living conditions of many people in any substantial way.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Perhaps more significant was the use of management strategies. Project Apollo had been a massive undertaking, completed ahead of schedule. What if the government could take on the problems of housing and education in the same way?
In 1967, Y.Y. was on the case. That summer, she worked with a team of engineers and social scientists on a “modern urban neighborhood program.”
So Y.Y. was applying engineering strategies born of the Apollo program to the design of cities, not just the design of machines...
Y.Y.'s daughter Carol was born in 1968, and in Y.Y.’s words, this “grounded” her. When Carol was little, Y.Y. decided she would only take on additional work within Nashville – so she did some summer teaching at Tennessee State.
MILTON CLARK: I will use her words, industry is her first love. But with the desire to have a family and the practicalities that evolved around that, she needed to have the stability that teaching provided.
By the 1970s Y.Y. was no longer spending summers at NASA. But she didn't exactly call it quits with the government. Instead, she became the director of a program at Tennessee State to sponsor student fellows at NASA on summer internships. And, right around this time, she accepted a position as department head at TSU.
YVONNE CLARK: I was taking condolences as well as congratulations.
KATIE HAFNER: Next time, in the final episode of Season 3, “The First Lady of Engineering,” we head to Tennessee State University, where Y.Y. taught and advocated for the next generation of Black scientists – and we meet some of the people continuing that work at HBCUs today.
KATIE HAFNER: This has been Lost Women of Science. Thanks to everyone who made this initiative happen, including our co-executive producer Amy Scharf, producer Ashraya Gupta, senior editor Nora Mathison, associate producer Sinduja Srinivasan, composer Elizabeth Younan, and the engineers at Studio D Podcast Production.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Thank you to Milton H. Clark, Sr. Much of this story comes from his book, Six Degrees of Freedom.
KATIE HAFNER: We’re grateful to Mike Fung, Cathie Bennett Warner, Dominique Guilford, Jeff DelViscio, Maria Klawe, Michelle Nijhuis, Susan Kare, Jeannie Stivers, Carol Lawson, and our interns, Hilda Gitchell and Hannah Carroll. Thanks also to Paula Goodwin, Nicole Searing and the rest of the legal team at Perkins Coie. Many thanks to Barnard College, a leader in empowering young women to pursue their passion in STEM.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Thank you to Tennessee State University, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, the University of Louisville, and the University of Alabama in Huntsville for helping us with our search.
And a special shout out to Gotham Production Studios…
KATIE HAFNER: …and…my closet, where this podcast was recorded.
Lost Women of Science is funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation, which catalyzes conversations about living purposeful and meaningful lives.
This podcast is distributed by PRX and published in partnership with Scientific American.
You can learn more about our initiative at lost women of science dot org or follow us on Twitter and Instagram. Find us @lostwomenofsci. That’s lost women of S C I.
Thank you so much for listening.
CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: I’m Carol Sutton Lewis.
KATIE HAFNER: And I’m Katie Hafner.
Katie Hafner was a longtime reporter for The New York Times, where she continues to be a frequent contributor. Katie is uniquely positioned to tell the stories of lost women of science. Not only does she bring a skilled hand to complex narratives, but she has been writing about women in STEM for nearly 30 years. She is the author of six books of non-fiction, and her first novel, The Boys, was published in July 2022 by Spiegel & Grau. Katie is also the host and executive producer of Our Mothers Ourselves, an interview podcast that celebrates extraordinary mothers.
There's a test that we at Lost Women of Science seem to fail again and again: the Finkbeiner Test.
A special guest episode from Our Mothers Ourselves: An Interview with Y.Y.'s Daughter, Carol Lawson
Y.Y. taught at Tennessee State University for 55 years. We look at her legacy as an engineer, an educator and a mom. And we investigate how HBCUs are training the next generation of Black scientists.
What did Y.Y. actually do as a mechanical engineer? We dive into her work at NASA.
When Y.Y. started college at Howard University, there were three things she swore she’d never do: marry a tall man, become a teacher, and work for the government. But love and life had other plans.
With her knack for fixing household appliances in early childhood, Y.Y. was practically born an engineer.
Listen to the First Lady of Engineering Season 3 Trailer here