First woman to join Von Braun’s team in technical role remembers Explorer launch 60 years later

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - At the end of the 1950s, Americans were looking at the skies.  On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. People believed we were losing the technology battle to our Cold War enemy.

On January 31, 1958, America responded by launching Explorer 1. The Army's Von Braun team at Redstone Arsenal made it possible. On that team was Dr. Joyce Neighbors.

"They came to the Army, the team that I was on, the Von Braun Team, and asked how soon we could put one in orbit." Neighbors explained.

Film footage from those days shows men. But, they weren't the only brains behind Explorer.

"I was selected to head up a small team," Neighbors said. "Two other mathematicians worked with me. We worked together, developed this chart for the firing table."

The team Joyce worked with included names we're familiar with today.

"Von Braun signed it," Neighbors said while showing a replica of the chart.

87-year-old Neighbors worked in a man's world. She knew she could run with men in a time when women usually weren't allowed in the race. Though, she did have people who believed in her, like her boss's boss.

"He was head of all engineering and he wanted me to take a position in one of the labs," Neighbors explained. "The lab director would not allow that."

Neighbors didn't let the opinions of others change her goals.

"My boss had told me, 'I didn't need my job because my husband was well-paid,'" Neighbors said. "I told him I did not accept that. He said, 'well there's nothing you can do about it.' I said, 'well, you may be surprised.'"

Neighbors spent her whole life surprising others. There's the time a local college visited her high school: "They asked who's going to college and I raised my hand. When they left, my teacher called me out on it. She said, 'now Joyce, you know you're not going to college. Your parents can't send you.'"

But, this poor student from rural Alabama used that as motivation.

"After I went to work at NASA, I went to school at night and got a masters in engineering," Neighbors explained. "Then, eventually got a doctorate in engineering."

Neighbors said her life wasn't a one-woman show. She married a man who proudly stood alongside a leading lady. That's her husband, Bill. "He was the best deal I ever made in my life."

Neighbors turned out to be a pretty good deal for NASA too.

Neighbors said her mother wanted to go to college desperately. But, her father said women didn't need an education. Neighbors said her mother's greatest goal in life was to see her children educated.