Core memory weavers and Navajo women made the Apollo missions possible
The historic Apollo moon missions are often associated with high-visibility test flights, dazzling launches and spectacular feats of engineering. But intricate, challenging handiwork — comparable to weaving — was just as essential to putting men on the moon. Beyond Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and a handful of other names that we remember were hundreds of thousands of men and women who contributed to Apollo over a decade. Among them: the Navajo women who assembled state-of-the-art integrated circuits for the Apollo Guidance Computer and the women employees of Raytheon who wove the computer’s core memory.
In 1962, when President John F. Kennedy declared that putting Americans on the moon should be the top priority for NASA, computers were large mainframes; they occupied entire rooms. And so one of the most daunting yet crucial challenges was developing a highly stable, reliable and portable computer to control and navigate the spacecraft.
NASA chose to use cutting-edge integrated circuits in the Apollo Guidance Computer. These commercial circuits had been introduced only recently. Also known as microchips, they were revolutionizing electronics and computing, contributing to the gradual miniaturization of computers from mainframes to today’s smartphones. NASA sourced the circuits from the original Silicon Valley start-up, Fairchild Semiconductor. Fairchild was also leading the way in the practice known as outsourcing; the company opened a factory in Hong Kong in the early 1960s, which by 1966 employed 5,000 people, compared with Fairchild’s 3,000 California employees.
At the same time, Fairchild sought low-cost labor within the United States. Lured by tax incentives and the promise of a labor force with almost no other employment options, Fairchild opened a plant in Shiprock, N.M., within the Navajo reservation, in 1965. The Fairchild factory operated until 1975 and employed more than 1,000 individuals at its peak, most of them Navajo women manufacturing integrated circuits.
It was challenging work. Electrical components had to be placed on tiny chips made of a semiconductor such as silicon and connected by wires in precise locations, creating complex and varying patterns of lines and geometric shapes. The Navajo women’s work “was performed using a microscope and required painstaking attention to detail, excellent eyesight, high standards of quality and intense focus,” writes digital media scholar Lisa Nakamura.