The Decline and Fall of Lunar RoyaltyFrom the Collection: Women in American History
In the summer of 1973 an anonymous band of women at NASA's Johnson Space Center made a mockery of the beauty contest planned by the agency for its Houston staff.
By Prudence Mackintosh, Wendy Meyer and Beverly Lowry
IT WASN’T EXACTLY ONE GIANT step for womankind, but from all reports this was one exploration NASA’s Director Christopher Columbus Kraft found not worth smiling about. Odds are that 1973’s Lunar Landing Festival Beauty Contest was not only the first such endeavor by NASA’s Employee Activity Association (EAA), but the very last.
It all started last summer when someone over in EAA got to thinking about what nice things all that money (namely, half the profits) from the vending machines and souvenir stands in the employees’ cafeterias could do for the hard-working NASA employees. They’d already subsidized the Christmas dance, the family picnic, the cheap Oiler tickets and NASA night at Dean Goss Dinner Theatre. What with the Lunar Landing Festival coming up in July, thought a young woman, why not a queen to reign over festival activities?
And so it came to pass that everyone who worked at NASA received via NASA’s efficient inter-office communication system, his opportunity to elect “a QUEEN and 5 girls in the COURT.” According to the ballot which listed the names of 48 women employees, “The girl will reign over the activities at the LUNAR LANDING FESTIVAL held in downtown Houston. She will be required to attend the public coronation ball, social teas, and private parties connected with this social function.”
That was just too much for local feminists who don’t like to be called “girls" and who had been claiming for some time that NASA discriminates against women in their employment practices.
Consequently, in the dead of night, or so these women tell it, a band of elves was spirited into the government buildings to fold, package, and subsequently slip into that same efficient inter-office mail system hundreds of alternative ballots which unsuspecting, but duty-bound, secretaries duly distributed to employees the following morning.
“The holder of this ballot may vote as many or as few times as possible from the list of lovelies below,” it announced. “From the names listed below [45 male NASA employees were listed, including Chris Kraft, Rusty Schweickart, Pete Conrad and Deke Slayton] there will be elected a KING (or QUEEN) and 5 boys in the COURT.”
“The boy will reign over the activities at the LUNAR LANDING FESTIVAL held in downtown Webster. He will be required to attend the public coronation ball, social teas, and private parties connected with this social function.
“Selection should not be based on merit. Vote for a pretty face & a good bod.”
When Chris Kraft happened upon a ballot, taped to the elevator wall, he reportedly turned white. He immediately called in the armed and uniformed security police and NASA regional inspector Glenn L. McAvoy to find the irresponsible culprits and to determine if criminal charges should be brought for misuse of government facilities. Secretaries were dispersed with orders to intercept and send to Security as many of the offensive ballots as could be found. An unsmiling, organized Investigation began. According to one observer, collecting evidence was complicated because many employees thought the illicit ballot so funny that they began Xeroxing copies.
Despite the continued and persistent investigation, the intrepid elves—noting that the results of the official EEA vote had been announced (allegedly before all the ballots were in!)—decided to announce their winners too. The results were affixed to poster boards which were then taped by the elves, once more working in the dead of night, to every NASA bulletin board and elevator their tiny little hands could reach.
“THE WINNERS!!! …LUNAR LANDING FESTIVAL KING (OR QUEEN) CONTEST,” it announced.
"KING: GLORIA STEINEM (write-in favorite)”
The eight members of the court, the boys that is, received labels considered appropriate. There was a black revolutionary , a conservative reactionary, a hippie liberal, an inscrutable oriental, a southern aristocrat, a Yankee stormtrooper and the last, this one next to Pete Conrad’s name, “Stuntman and human cannonball.”
A lengthy note was appended: “The wide cross-section of size, weight, color, religion, political views, sex and individual deviances represented by the winners of this contest dispense, once and for all, the blatant charges that have been laid at the doorsteps of Johnson Space Center—that its record of discriminatory practices is worse than any other NASA installation; worse than the aerospace community surrounding it; and possibly among the worst in the Federal government.” The note went on to apologize for the fact that they could not validate the accuracy of their tally due to impoundment of the ballots by NASA security forces. It closed with this: “Let us now, Kings and Queens, pledge ourselves to overcoming that immortal statement by Astronaut, Patriot, and National hero, James Lovell, which was reported recently in Playboy Magazine:
We fully envision that in the near future we will fly women into space and use them the same way we use them on earth—for the same purpose.
The yellow paper was flanked by cartoons which the elves had commissioned Houston artist Anastasia Sams to do: these included one of a prostrate queen (girl) on the moon’s surface with a giant boot bearing down on her crowned head: “One giant step for mankind.” Others showed the Moon Maid first carrying mop, broom, and trash barrel on the moon (“You’ve come a long way baby”) and then on a 3/4" (so labelled) pedestal—”the height of equality” and “just about as high as she can go.”
Back at NASA’s ninth floor, Building Two, where the head honchos huddled, no one was laughing. By 9:30 a.m., Security had removed every copy of Offense #2. An interested visitor who tried to get a copy of Offense #1, the ballot for the boys, was told “I promised Chris Kraft I wouldn’t let the press get hold of it.”
None of the elves was talking. Some of the “boys of the court” reacted with undisguised embarrassment to the honor bestowed upon them. At least one thought it was funny and asked when he was going to get a fitting for his dress. But most of the division and department heads thought the whole affair had been in bad taste and would best be forgotten.
The women who’d won the legit contest didn’t think it was funny either.
“They really got screwed,” observed one of the more sympathetic elves later on. “They had to buy their own dresses and no men came out to hustle them. It turned out to be a bummer for them.”
No one ever did find out exactly who had put the elves up to their mischief.
Reprinted with permission from the January 1974 issue of Texas Monthly
Explore Texas Monthly's July 2019 Space Issue for more out of their space archives and for new perspectives on the final frontier.