Women and Science

Beight, Mary Catherine Grady | NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Archive


    An incredible archive documenting the work of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory between 1965 and 1984, the golden age of uncrewed space exploration, compiled by female control room mission specialist Mary Catherine Grady Beight (1917-2012). The heart of the archive are the 148 photographs taken during the Apollo, Mariner, Pioneer, Viking, Voyager, and Galileo missions, some of which were only released in-house, rather than as public relations packets. There are also congratulatory printed letters to staff from JPL directors, staff newsletters, certificates of achievement, and a small number of souvenirs.

    NASA’s Jet propulsion Laboratory was founded in the 1930s as a Caltech student club for amateur rocketry. During the Second World War it was sponsored by the US Army and became a fully-fledged research centre focusing on rocketry. Within three months of Sputnik’s launch in October 1957, JPL had built the United States’ first satellite, Explorer 1, and in 1958 the organisation was transferred to the control of the new civilian space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, while remaining under the management of Caltech. “The Laboratory began to turn its attention from the rockets themselves to the payloads they would carry. Developing these payloads - scientific spacecraft - would become the new focus and place JPL at the center of the Space Race with the Soviet Union... Thus commenced a long series of "first ever" accomplishments by JPL that helped define history's first five decades of space exploration” (JPL website “History & Archives” page).

    Women were key employees of JPL from the very beginning of its life as a government research centre. The first was Barbara Canright, hired in 1939 as a mathematical computer to work on the first federal grant project, the development of a rocket plane. More female computers, and eventually engineers and mission specialists, quickly followed (see Holt, Rise of the Rocket Girls, 2016). The compiler of this archive, Mary Catherine Beight, was born in 1917 and attended the LA Business College. Though it is unclear what her previous career was, she joined JPL at age 47 in 1964, and worked as a control room mission specialist for the Deep Space Network before retiring in the mid-1980s. Founded in 1958, the DSN is a world-wide array of communications facilities that support NASA’s interplanetary missions by monitoring and communicating with uncrewed spacecraft. Beight’s role on this team meant her involvement with almost every major mission undertaken during her two decades with JPL, and this probably accounts for the great breadth of her archive.

    The archive begins with Apollo missions 5, 8, 10, 11, 14, 15, and 17. Apollo 8 was the first manned mission to orbit the Moon, and included here are photographs of its launch (the first using a Saturn V rocket); the Western hemisphere as seen from the capsule on December 21st; and the full Moon and images of the lunar surface, including the far side. Apollo 10, the “dress rehearsal” for the Moon landing is represented with a photo of the Lunar Module in its practice descent orbit, and the Apollo 11 vehicle is depicted on the launch pad in the early morning. Four photos depict lift-off of Apollo 14 and the equipment and activity on the Lunar surface during Apollo 14, 15, and 17. Additionally, there are photographs of some of the astronauts and the mission patches, a booklet on Apollo 8, and two NASA fact sheets for schools about “Weightlessness” and “Telemetry”. The Deep Space Network was not the primary means of communication for the Apollo missions, but did contribute and served as the primary backup for the main network.

    The next major missions represented are Mariner VI and VII, the first dual mission to Mars, in which the two probes studied the surface and atmosphere. Beight has kept a printed booklet of photos, daily status bulletins, and two silver gelatine prints showing the surface of the planet, with dittoed text on the backs. Beight was probably involved with Mariner VI and VII, and it’s clear that she was directly involved with Mariner VIII in 1971, as she has received two photocopied letters from mission manager Dan Schneiderman, one congratulating the team on a “highly successful Mars Orbit Insertion and Orbit Trim Maneuver” (in other words, positioning the satellite in the correct orbit), the second explaining that after the end of a global dust storm the satellite is beginning its mapping and “during the remainder of our mission, lithos of the most noteworth pictures will be forwarded to you on a periodic basis”. These are presumably the 27 photographic prints depicting the surface of the planet included here. There are also three photographs, a silver gelatine print of the control room with dittoed text on the back, and two colour photos of the launch without text, daily status updates, a DSN newsletter discussing the Mars antenna, and some booklets and colour illustrations produced for the public.

    In 1972 the first probe to Jupiter, Pioneer 10, was launched, and the archive contains a colour photo titled “Historic photograph taken from NASA’s Pioneer 10 spacecraft, showing the red Spot and Cloud Structure of Jupiter, plus the shadow of its Moon Io”, taken on December 1st, 1973. Two photos are included depicting Jupiter as seen from Pioneer 11, including a close-up of the Red Spot. All three of these images seem to have been produced for internal consumption, particularly the final two, which included technical data in the print.

    Next Viking I and II, launched in 1975, became the first probes to land on Mars. This is another program that Beight was clearly involved with, as she has received three certificates of achievement, a congratulatory printed letter from manager Henry W. Norris, ”In spite of the challenges, you have performed in an exemplary manner and two beautiful Viking Orbiters are on their way to Mars, flying with very few concerns”, as well as one from the heads of the Mission Control and Computer Center, in which they extend their appreciation for “your efforts in making the Data Systems Division 91 contributions to the Viking Project such as success”. Included with these letters are 17 colour and black and white photographic prints of the Martian surface, including the “first panoramic view by Viking 1 from the surface of Mars”, dated July 20, 1976. Together with two status bulletins, a photocopied Christmas message from Bruce Murray, a commemorative statement by the Viking scientists, mission stickers, and a published booklet of technical information about Viking. Most interestingly, there is a small black and white Polaroid snapshot of the control room, probably taken with a personal camera.

    The Voyager I and II probes were launched in 1977 to explore the outer solar system, in particular Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and then continue into interstellar space. Both are still operational, with Voyager I having travelled further than any other manmade object. Beight received two congratulatory letters for her participation with Voyager, and her archive includes 61 colour and black and white prints from photographs of this mission, including the Titan rockets and a capsule before launch, one of the probes in the laboratory before encapsulation, the Golden record and a copy of the signature plates, and beautiful colour images taken by the probes, including shots of Jupiter, its Great Red Spot, and its ring and planets, including an enormous out-gassing from Io, and Saturn and its rings and planets. There are also four published booklets on Voyager.

    Finally, there is material, including photographs, connected with the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, the first space telescope to perform a survey of the entire night sky at infrared wavelengths; SEASAT, the first satellite designed to monitor the Earth’s oceans, the Deep Space Network itself (a colour photograph depicting all four antennas), several copies of “Lab-Oratory” and other JPL staff newsletters, a metal plaque commemorating PlanetFest ‘81, and five original JPL mailing envelopes, many with Beight’s name.

  • ...Compiled by a Female Control Room Mission Specialist. Comprising mission updates, photographs, employee newsletters, and souvenirs documenting JPL projects between 1965 and 1984, including Apollo, Mariner, Pioneer 10 & 11, Viking, Voyager, Skylab, SEASAT, and Galileo.

    Pasadena, CA & Washington D. C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1965-1985.

    Archive composed of 135 printed photos with printed explanatory text (between 20.3 x 25.4 cm and 21.6 x 28 cm); 13 silver gelatine and colour photographs on glossy photo stock, most with explanatory text on the versos (between 10 x 15.25 cm and 21.6 x 28 cm); 37 printed pamphlets, newsletters, bulletins & etc., most in quarto; 14 printed letters to staff from JPL directors Bruce Murray, Ray Heacock, and Lew Allen, with printed signatures; 1 photocopied ALS from Bruce Murray; PlanetFest ‘81 aluminum souvenir plaque (12.7 x 22.8 cm); and 5 original JPL mailing envelopes. The bulk of the archive newly housed in individual mylar sleeves in two blue ring binders with printed silver titles to the upper covers; three certificates and the mailing envelopes separately housed in archival sleeves. Occasional minor creasing and paper clip marks, but overall this is a very well preserved archive in superb condition.