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One small step for man, thanks to three Duke female graduates

The 1969 moon landing featured heroes like astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, but don't forget the three Duke women who helped get them up to the moon and back safely. Courtesy of Air Force Materiel Command.
The 1969 moon landing featured heroes like astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, but don't forget the three Duke women who helped get them up to the moon and back safely. Courtesy of Air Force Materiel Command.

Before Neil Armstrong took that historic first step onto the moon’s surface 50 years ago, three Duke alumnae were among the thousands of people who worked to prepare the Apollo 11 mission for its historic voyage.

Julie Isherwood, Women’s College ’68, Lindsay Robinson and Parrish Nelson Hirasaki, both Pratt ’67, were employed by TRW, an aerospace contractor for NASA in Houston.

“Our families thought we were rock stars,” Hirasaki told Duke Magazine. “Even though I was part of a large group, they would tell people the astronauts couldn’t have gone to the moon without me.”

She computed the heat shield of the command module—the cabin that held the astronauts—which would be crucial for making sure the crew didn't burn up as they returned to the Earth’s atmosphere.

Robinson was responsible for running computer simulations on the lunar and command modules’ electrical power systems. Meanwhile, Isherwood, a member of the trajectory analysis division, developed the abort parameters for the lunar module’s touch-down on and lift-off from the moon’s surface, meant to save the astronauts just in case anything went wrong.

During their time at Duke, there were few other women in their courses of study. While Robinson studied electrical engineering, Isherwood was a math major with an interest in computer science. Hirasaki studied mechanical engineering and was the vice president of the engineering student government her senior year. 

“I was in my element,” Hirasaki said, referring to her time studying engineering at Duke. “It would have been a shame if I had never found it.”

Both she and Robinson found themselves working for the space program in Houston after graduation. Hirasaki told Duke Magazine she picked Houston from her two other offers because “that’s where the action was.”

A year later, Isherwood received an offer from TRW in Houston after impressing the recruiter with her problem-solving skills.

Before she started working there, Isherwood said someone told her, “Whatever you do, don’t work for the space program. Everything you do after will be boring.”

And after the Apollo landing, she knew he was correct. 

“I’ve talked about it all my life,” she said. “He was right—the rest was a letdown.”

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