Lifting Off

Langley internships changed women’s lives in the summer of ’65

Several of the Langley interns worked on typewriter-like Friden calculators, similar to the one shown in this 1960s-era photo.  (Smith Collection/Gado/ Getty Images)

Several of the Langley interns worked on typewriter-like Friden calculators, similar to the one shown in this 1960s-era photo.
(Smith Collection/Gado/ Getty Images)

By Laura Moyer

Other eighth-grade girls in the late 1950s filled their scrapbooks with Elvis Presley pictures, but Bertha Jo Terry ’66 dedicated hers to Sputnik.

So as a junior math major at Mary Washington College in 1965, she was thrilled to see on a bulletin board that NASA was seeking summer interns. To Terry’s delight, she was among six Mary Washington women chosen for summer jobs with NASA at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia.

The jobs were prestigious and well-paid, and for good reason: NASA urgently needed brainpower for the calculations required to put American astronauts on the moon. As Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine noted in an editorial that year, the summer of 1965 was “the time when the U.S. effort … began breaking its own new ground, in contrast to the earlier era of stern-chasing the Soviets.”

Prompted earlier this year by seeing the movie Hidden Figures – about the female African-American mathematicians at Langley during the space race – Marilyn “Marty” Spigel Sedoff got back in touch with four other NASA interns from Mary Washington Class of ’66. They are Alice Ann “Sann” Moore Forry, Mary Kathryn Rowell Horner, Cornelia “Cornie” Bowles Dexter, and Terry, now named Terry Caruthers. Another intern, Evangeline “Eva” Teng Marcus, passed away in 2015.

In phone and email interviews with UMW Magazine, the women shared memories of a summer that was remarkable in American history and liberating, even life-changing, on a personal level.

For all six, then ages 20 and 21, it was the first real taste of adult freedom. Mary Washington in the mid-60s still embraced the “in loco parentis” concept, with curfews, dress codes, and strict rules for socializing with men. Women had to introduce their properly attired dates to dorm mothers, called head residents, who would issue guest cards. The 1964-65 Student Handbook even forbade accompanying a date behind unlighted campus buildings.

But at their duplex in Hampton that summer, the women made decisions for themselves. Marty, Terry, and Eva shared the upstairs apartment, with Sann, Mary Kathryn, and Cornie downstairs. The six pooled grocery money and took turns cooking and doing laundry. “We were amazingly organized,” Terry recalled. (Story continues below.)

Transportation was courtesy of Mary Kathryn’s older sister, who’d left her Chevrolet behind when she went overseas to teach. All six crammed onto the bench seats, and Terry remembers that they sang Harry Belafonte songs in the car before Mary Kathryn dropped them off at their Langley buildings.

Each worked in a different area, but the duties were similarly tedious.

Mary Kathryn was assigned to a wind tunnel, but she rarely even peeked inside where the testing happened. The engineers would hand over pages of handwritten numbers for her to enter in a Friden calculator that looked like an oversized typewriter. “I’d punch in numbers, and the machine would sit there and go ‘chunk, chunk, kachunk,’ and it would spit out an answer,” she said.

Marty was assigned to search for a place on solid ground where a returning space capsule could touch down, instead of splashing into the sea. But she recalls that the only suitable sites were in the hostile countries of China and Russia, and by the end of the summer that effort was abandoned.

Terry, too, was stuck using a clunky Friden calculator. But her assignment did have two highlights for someone who preferred satellites to Elvis: She got to see rocket fuel, and she toured the Wallops Island facility where space testing was concentrated.

But the best parts of the summer were evenings and weekends.

“It was all about fun. We left work at work, and there was no studying!” Cornelia Dexter wrote in an email. Added Alice Forry, “Any memories I have are more about the fun part than the working part.”

Six college women in one house drew keen interest in an area crawling with male interns, engineers, physicists, and Navy sailors. Any housemate who wanted a date could have one.

Even Eva, remembered by her fellow interns as coming from a conservative Chinese family, agreed to a date one evening. She was so innocent, Marty Sedoff recalled, that her friends felt compelled to warn her: “If he wants to take you to the submarine races, tell him NO!”

Extroverted Terry outdid everyone, with so many dates her housemates started keeping count. They say Terry managed 66 dates in 63 days, though she thinks that number is exaggerated. “I don’t think it was that many, but I did have a date almost every night,” she said.

Marty had just gotten engaged back home in Roanoke, Virginia, so for her dating was out of the question. But one evening a man came to the door to take Terry to a dinner theater, and she wasn’t home. The guy persuaded Marty to go with him so the tickets wouldn’t be wasted.

“So here this man shows up in a suit and tie, and he looks lovely, and he takes me to dinner,” she said. At some point in the evening she reminded him, “You realize it’s not a date, right?” And he said, “Yeah, I know.”

That not-date became a summer full of platonic outings, but true to his promise, the fellow never even tried to kiss her.

By the end of the summer, Marty knew she couldn’t marry her beau from home. “I thought, if I go back and marry this man, I won’t know what the world is all about.” She ended the engagement, to the consternation of her fiancé and their mutual friends in Roanoke.

The summer of freedom didn’t derail anyone’s education or ambitions. All six completed their senior year and began careers in math and computers. Several also earned advanced degrees.

Though Marty Sedoff recalls that it was a bit of an adjustment to return to all those Mary Washington rules, the women remember their college years fondly. “It was an entirely different life,” Mary Kathryn Horner said, “and one I would not trade for anything.”

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