The Apollo 11 liftoff as seen from Launch Complex 39 press site, July 16, 1969

The Apollo 11 liftoff as seen from Launch Complex 39 press site, July 16, 1969 NASA file photo

The Lost Stories of NASA's 'Pink-Collar' Workforce

A newspaper series from America’s golden age of space exploration offers a rare glimpse into the lives of the agency’s secretaries and stenographers.

In 1962, a young reporter named Ursula Vils signed on to The Los Angeles Times at the beginning of the most spectacular and productive period of human spaceflight in United States history. A year earlier, Alan Shepard had become the first American to fly in space, and eight months later, John Glenn would become the first American to orbit the earth. Before the end of the decade, the United States would plant the stars and stripes on the moon.

As part of the paper’s coverage of the space program, Vils, a former women’s editor who would go on to work in the “Family” and “View” sections of the Times, contributed to a series on the women who worked at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas, and other NASA centers and contractors. The series profiled women in various technical and clerical positions whose work contributed to what was by the mid-1960s a vast technological enterprise and a source of national prestige. 

Last year, women who worked in the space program and other scientific and technological institutions throughout the 20th century were given some long-overdue attention by new nonfiction books like Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt and The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel. A third book, Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, was adapted into a film. In particular, the critical and financial success of the film, about black women “computers” working to calculate spacecraft trajectories for NASA’s Mercury program, presented a more nuanced and complete history of the space program—a history that, until this point, has been predominantly told through the accomplishments of white men.

In the same way, revisiting Vils’s reporting reintroduces women whose pioneering work has largely been forgotten. Sometimes, Vils’s dated journalistic style confines these women to the tropes of mid-century gender roles. Yet often her stories cut both ways, getting at the heart of women’s struggles to be accepted and succeed in male-dominated professions.

Many of the women Vils wrote about worked in technical positions like physiology or engineering, but others held more traditional “pink collar” jobs as secretaries and stenographers. Vils profiled Marilyn Bockting when she was an assistant to George Low, a high-ranking administrator at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. Bockting managed Low’s calendar and correspondence, and a large part of her job consisted of responding to letters from the public. Vils portrays her as something of an informant about the lives of the families of astronauts and administrators, whose stories were highly sought-after by the press and public. “The Lows have five children and Mrs. Low says she even had to schedule her last baby around Gordon Cooper’s flight,” Vils reports via Bockting. But Bockting was no idle gossip; she went on to be one of the first women to be promoted to a management position at NASA.

Women also worked for aerospace firms that contracted with the agency. Vils profiled Paula Robb, who worked in the Stowage Group at North American Rockwell during the Apollo program in 1972, just as the program was ending. Known at work as P.F. Robb, her job was to design the packing scheme for Apollo spacecraft, ensuring that all the astronauts’ gear was organized and stowed securely for their voyage. Vils describes Robb as “not an engineer,” but quotes her as saying she has “always worked in engineering” and notes that she had never held a secretarial job.

Robb was openly critical of the gender hierarchy of her profession. “Why should anyone be surprised that when P.F. Robb answers the phone, it’s a woman?” she asks Vils. “Why should it be more of surprise than if it’s a man?” But Vils undermines Robb’s critique somewhat when she follows this quote with a description of how “North American Rockwell’s P. H. Robb is very much Mrs. Ronald Robb, wife of a management systems analyst.” And Vils goes on to juxtapose Robb’s family life and professional organizing skills by quoting Robb’s description of how she planned her pregnancies so carefully that when her son was born she “missed the first calculation by 23 hours and 32 minutes.”

 Vils uses a similar framing for the work of Rita Rapp, an “aerospace technologist—environmental physiology,” whose job entailed the packing and organizing of food containers onboard spacecraft. When describing astronaut food, Vils quotes Rapp to note that “with the freeze-dried rehydratable foods, the astronauts can eat with a spoon, which means we can use larger chunks of food. It’s the difference between baby foods and junior foods.” But later, Rapp emphasizes that her job relates more to “viewing food as the hardware—it’s my job to see it’s on board the spacecraft.” The analogy of baby food suggests a domestic connotation for Rapp’s work, but Rapp shows how it is in fact part of the technology of the spaceflight.

Many of Vils’s pieces are studded with asides liked these that feel outdated or even sexist. Vils usually gives a physical description of the women she profiles, noting if they are “pretty” and their height and hair and eye color. But each profile attempts to account for the challenges these women faced working in a male-dominated environment. Vils often includes anecdotes that highlight the tension that sometimes surrounded women’s position in the space program: “‘I finally got a desk,’ said endocrinologist Carolyn Leach, and added that ‘I’m sure he’—she nodded toward a male scientist’s desk that share office space with hers—‘expects me to hang polka-dot curtains in here. I just wish I had the time to do it.’” Indeed, Leach was too busy with a career: In 1994, she became the first woman director of Johnson Space Center.

By highlighting domestic metaphors, workers’ personal and family lives, and assumptions her readers would have had about specifically feminine skills, Vils frames the labor of women working in the space program in the gendered terms that would have been familiar to her audience. At a time when more and more women were working outside the home and in technical professions that had been long been reserved for men, Vils’s reporting is a snapshot of the ways that women negotiated new roles for themselves.

As far as I know, Vils never profiled any women of color for her series, though they were undoubtedly working in many other fields besides computing. Their absence in the Times’s reporting reflects the dynamics of gender and race in mid-century America. Though people of color did work at NASA before the passage of the Civil Rights act in 1964, it wasn’t until that year that the agency began actively recruiting black engineers. Access to specialized education was limited for people of color, and technical education was generally reserved for men. Vils’s reporting is one avenue toward recovering the contributions of women to the story of human spaceflight in the United States, but clearly there is much work left to be done.