Monday, July 1, 2013

NASA Beauty Pageants 1952-1973


Perhaps you thought the NASA bedrest studies were the goofiest thing you ever saw at the space agency, but did you know NASA once held beauty pageants?!

NASA Beauty Pageants
Click to see the original 2-page spread in the archives

This is one of those anomalous things I thought "everyone knew about," and I don't get the urge to research or write about in terms of historical accuracy -- until someone argues with me. You know who you are. And I won't rub it in or anything, but these definitely are not myth or legend. While the events are not exactly well-documented in the NASA archives, proof absolutely does exist.

Beginning at their Spring Dance in 1952, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California held annual "Miss Guided Missile" pageants. There's definitely a "misguided" joke sitting right smack in the middle of all this -- but heck, it was the 1950s, what can you do?!

Miss Guided Missile Alane Hine
Miss Guided Missile 1955, Alane Hine, employee of JPL Solid Rockets section

When I first heard of this, I thought perhaps it was an unofficial lark for fun at some kind of spring picnic... but no. Incredibly, managers of various departments sponsored coronation candidates, and developed actual campaigns to draw employee votes -- which included luncheons, and parades around the campus streets in decorated convertibles.

None other than rocket scientist and longest-serving director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dr. Walter Pickering, crowned the ladies through the years, at events sponsored by the Employees Recreation Club (ERC).

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was transferred to NASA in 1958, the same year the Zsa Zsa Gabor film "Queen of Outer Space" was released.  The following year, JPL's pageant was similarly (and one imagines humorously) re-named, also reflecting JPL's transition from missiles to spacecrafts.

JPL Queen of Outer Space
JPL "Queen of Outer Space" in May, 1962

These perfectly-acceptable-then-but-seeming-travesties-now continued through the 1960s, only halting in 1970.  Apparently, that was around the time it was enough for the women to perform their math magic alongside men without wondering how anyone looked in an evening gown!

While I know some fellow feminists are probably gnashing their teeth reading this, it's worthwhile to note that pageants originated at JPL because they were among the first major governmental and aeronautic facilities to employ women!  JPL hired them throughout the 1940s and 1950s to compute satellite trajectories; the first female engineer was hired in 1961 to work on the Ranger and Mariner mission tracking teams.  So, in a weird way, the road to equality was paved with marginalizing... but then, when it is ever not?

Miss NASA 1971
Miss NASA 1971 with Apollo 8 at Lewis Research Center

While NASA never had an agency-wide pageant comprising women from all centers, and certainly never sponsored these events as a rule across any centers, the Lewis Center in Ohio crowned a "Miss NASA" each year between 1968 and 1973.

NASA Lewis Research Center was founded in 1958, and renamed NASA John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field in 1999.  Today, we generally refer to it as "NASA Glenn". Same set of buildings.

Miss NASA 1973
Miss NASA 1973 Merri Fahnenbruck with Apollo Moon rock

The pictures, with precious few details, are easily found by keyword in the NASA Archives, just don't tell anyone you're searching for a tomato in a tiara, standing next to an RL-10 engine. You might get a bad reputation.

Click on any of the pictures above to see the entire collection of NASA beauty pageant photographs, or click this Pillownaut domain link.