Lecturer illuminates role of women in Apollo missions

Over the course of its six-decade-long history, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has come up with hundreds of acronyms to make rocket science less of a mouthful. NASA engineers were saying “LOL” long before the advent of the internet. During the Apollo program of the 1960s, “LOL” meant “little old lady.”

Last Wednesday, Sept. 19, Professor of Human Centered Design and Engineering at Washington University Daniela Rosner delivered the Tatlock Lecture in Taylor Hall, sponsored by the Tatlock Multidisciplinary Studies Initiative. She shared the story of the LOL Weavers, a group of women who contributed to the Apollo program by weaving the core rope memory systems used in early missions. The story is one of the many lost histories retold in Rosner’s new book, “Critical Fabulations: Remaking the Margins of Design,” that she uses to consider how today’s culture interacts with technology and design.

Rosner said that her fascination with the story began when she saw two seconds of footage in “Moon Machines,” a 2008 documentary about the engineering chal- lenges of the Apollo missions. Rosner said that in the footage, “You see two women with rolled-up sleeves passing a needle back and forth through a grid of eyelet holes.” Those women were wiring the computer memory of the Apollo navigation systems.

In the ’60s, engineers needed codes of ones and zeros manually stitched into grids of magnets. This wiring had to survive the vibrations, massive temperature shifts and cramped spaces of the Apollo capsule. In effect, Neil Armstrong’s small step onto the moon in 1969 was made possible by the hundreds of small stitches made by women at NASA.

According to Rosner, the women presented a new way to view the achievements of the Apollo missions as not just planned by engineers but also created by women’s hands. Though the women worked with materials such as wires, magnetic rings, ferrite plates and microscopes, the movements of their hands were informed by a tradition of weaving. “I’ve done a lot of textile work, and that’s what drew me to the ‘Moon Machines’ documentary,” Rosner explained. The technique these female NASA employees used represents a fascinating intersection between engineering, craftwork and design.

“The core of the project,” Rosner began, referencing her book, “ [is] the notion of fabulation.” Fabulation is the process of retelling a myth to construct new possibilities for the exploring how we interact with the world. For Rosner, the power of storytelling stems from the legacy of such feminist scholars as Vinciane Despret, Saidiya Hartman and Lisa Nakamura.

Retelling the story of the LOL Weavers required looking beyond what has been preserved in public archives, Rosner illuminated. For example, the documentary Rosner referenced features the voice of Richard Battin, a NASA engineer, over the footage of the weavers, pointing to the dominant narratives of this particular history. Rosner thus wanted to explore the weaving pro- cess itself to find a “deeper recognition of wom- en’s work, particularly women of color in the revolutions of engineering.”

Having studied and worked in the world of design for over two decades, Rosner knew how to take up the task of deeply understanding the experience of the weavers. She started on eBay, where she found Apollo-era computer memory units. When the package, covered in Russian lettering, came to her door, she began to experiment hands-on with the core memory planes. “I started to hold them in my hands and think of them as a kind of memory quilt and think of core memory as a kind of gendered, feminized work of the hand,” she said.

Rosner had the idea to turn the exploration into a workshop. Collaborating with an interdisciplinary team at the University of Washington, she invited groups of students, educators and members of the public to contribute to a quilt. Each was given what the team called a patch kit, a much larger version of the core memory planes used in the Apollo missions.

When assembled properly, each patch would transmit a signal through the larger network of the quilt and send messages through Twitter. However, most patches resulted in a mess of tangled thread and beads spilled across the floor, Rosner recalled. At one of the workshops, an engineer on the Apollo missions asked incredulously, “Are we really going to do this?”

Much of the documentation of the women’s work was “presenting the weavers as unthinking, unskilled laborers, and those were perceptions we couldn’t hold after experiencing the precision process ourselves,” recounted Rosner. This observation worked against traditional narratives that favor focus on the work of genius innovators—often male—which closely tie power and cultural views of innovation. During the workshops, participation in design itself consequently became a tool to shift dominant narratives.

After the lecture, students excitedly asked Rosner for her thoughts on issues of technology with which society is grappling today: facial recognition software used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to unlock phones, Airbnb as an extension of the landlord economy and what it means to be an engineering student in an age of automation.

Luis Arguello ’22 said he came to the lecture because he wants to pursue the Dual-Degree Engineering Program with Dartmouth College and thought Rosner’s approach to engineering would be informative. He reflected, “She shed a light on how those technologies were approached back then,” but he is ultimately concerned that not much progress has been made in gender parity in STEM fields and histories. “Today,” Arguello continued, “we have machines and we still tend to not recognize women who have done that level of work.” Rosner noted how being able to hold and interact with the technology in the workshops blurred the lines between engineering and art. With microchips and precision machines, the primacy of the human touch is lost.

Arguello, though, evoked the need to acknowledge the humans behind progresses in science, affirming, “It’s a community that built the Apollo, and it’s only a few that got the credit for it, let alone the women who built the circuits.”

Students also inquired about how Rosner’s research affects her work within the classroom. She responded that—more than they realize— teachers are storytellers. Her critical approach to understanding the history of design and technology has complicated the stories she tells.

Vassar Professor of Urban and American Studies Lisa Brawley introduced Rosner at the lecture. Brawley first met Rosner when the two were attending a multidisciplinary workshop at Olin College of Engineering, which also examined the stories told by educators. In her introduction, she expressed her interest in works that “help us think about the kinds of questions that take place at the edges and intersections of more established modes of knowing.” Brawley’s work this year as the Anne McNiff Tatlock Class of ’61 Chair of Multidisciplinary Studies focuses on critical design as it relates to urbanism and the sociology of spaces.

Brawley stated that Vassar promotes an environment in which collaborative work is recognized, pointing out that these opportunities are not always easy to find. Brawley added that she “was fortunate to have been able to participate in ‘Design and the Senses,’ in a four-week faculty-student research program,” and that “collaboration is at the heart of that initiative.”

These ideas of collaboration and recognition are central to the work Rosner presented, as well as to the history of design and engineering she discussed in her talk. “Engineers tend not to see stories,” Rosner summed up, commenting on the interaction between storytelling, the knowledge of history and practical developments in technique. However, she continued, “Telling stories that awaken a silenced, subjugated past can deconstruct design methods that open different possibilities for the past to refigure the present and the future.”

One Comment

  1. Ann McNiff Tatlock has a brother John McNiff whose story should be known. He may have not acquired great wealth but at the age of 21 he did what many men would not have done. You can read his story on Kindle, Under the Radar by James McNiff.

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