Reclaiming history; inspiring historical figures whose names and deeds may not be as well-known as some of their contemporaries because, well, you know…
The Mercury 13 (1960-1962, USA)
They were charter pilots, commercial pilots, flight instructors, licensed helicopter pilots, air school owners, speed record holders, aerial acrobats, the first female air safety investigator and FAA inspector, the second female pilot to exceed Mach 1, World War 2 fliers with the Women’s Airforce Service Pilot service delivering warplanes to airbases. They had thousands of air hours between them. Thirteen women with notable achievements, but the one dream they shared, to be an astronaut, was to prove out of their grasp.
In 1958, NASA established the Mercury programme to find astronauts to beat the Russians in the race to space. NASA considered inviting people with experience of extreme conditions, such as submarines, Polar expeditions, deep diving and high altitude climbing. However, President Eisenhower favoured recruiting jet test pilots from the airforce and this became one of the selection requirements for entry to the programme, together with an engineering or science degree and a height of less than 5 foot 11 inches. A rigorous series of physical, psychological and aeromedical tests was developed by Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II to determine those candidates most capable of dealing with the stresses of space travel on the body and mind. The seven men who passed the tests and entered astronaut training were dubbed The Mercury 7.
Dr. Lovelace believed that women had a place in space too and was curious how they would perform in the tests. His good friend was Jacqueline Cochran, an aviation pioneer who held the speed record and had headed the Women’s Air Services in World War 2. Together with her husband, they funded Lovelace’s testing programme and recruited 25 women they knew from the flying community. The women underwent the same physical and psychological tests used on the Mercury men and 13 of them passed. The final phase of testing, the aeromedical tests in which the women would experience jet flight and the centrifuge, were scheduled for September 1961. However, these were cancelled at the last minute as the navy had not received an official request from NASA to use their facilities, so Lovelace and the women were unable to complete their testing.
The women returned to other aviation jobs but were not willing to let the matter rest. In July 1962, two of the 13, Jerrie Cobb and Janey Briggs Hart, testified at a House Committee Hearing on Sex Discrimination, challenging the “boys network” at NASA. Hart stated that,“it’s inconceivable to me that the world of outer space should be restricted to men only, like some sort of stag club.”
In response, it was argued that the inclusion of women would slow the programme due to their lack of jet training (which was unavailiable to women) and that speed was vital in the race against the Russians following Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon. Five months after his own historic Earth orbit, John Glenn, whose own failure to meet NASA’s eligibility requirements due to the lack of a degree had been ignored, testified against women being admitted into the astronaut programme;
“It’s just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact the women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.”
Ultimately, NASA’s entry requirements stood and President Johnson closed all avenues for the women to further argue their case. The Mercury 13 finally had to concede, “I guess we did it well and they didn’t like that.”
The year following the Congressional hearing, in June 1963, the Mercury women watched as Russian Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space, orbiting the Earth 48 times. In the US, it wasn’t until the 1970s that airforce training was finally opened to women, and in 1978 Eileen Collins began pilot training. She loved flying but, like the Mercury 13, her dream was to be an astronaut, and now finally US women could meet NASA’s requirements. In 1995, 32 years after the Mercury testing and Tereshkova had shown that women were as capable as men of going to space, Collins piloted the space shuttle Discovery on a mission to the Russian space station Mir. She invited the Mercury 13 to the launch and credited them with being an inspiration. The women had front-row seats to proudly watch a woman achieve something they could only dream of. It must have been bitter-sweet, but Sarah Ratley explained, “We felt redeemed. Our mission was not in vain.”
The Mercury Thirteen were: Janey Briggs Hart, Myrtle Cagle, Jerrie Cobb, Janet Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Wally Funk, Sarah Gorelick Ratley, Jean Hixson, Irene Leverton, Jerry Sloan Truhill, Berenice Steadman, Gene Nora Stumbough Jessen and Rhea Woltman,
June 2019, Jacqueline MacDonald
“Mercury 13” – Netflix documentary (2018)
“The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight” by Martha Ackmann (2004, Random House)
The Verge “We fact-checked Mercury 13, Netflix’s doc about NASA’s first women astronaut trainees” https://www.theverge.com/2018/5/29/17393698/netflix-documentary-mercury-13-women-space-astronauts-margaret-weitekamp-interview