The Mercury 13: First Female American Astronauts
In 1960, the chairman of the NASA Special Advisory Committee on Life Science was a man named William Randolph Lovelace II. He had previously worked as a well-known and respected Flight Surgeon. Lovelace was involved with developing the various tests NASA would use to choose astronauts. Lovelace wanted to know how women would perform if they underwent the same testing as male astronauts. During 1960, some very accomplished female pilots were asked to participate in the same rigorous NASA testing challenges male astronauts had to pass.
The records of over 700 female pilots were reviewed during the selection process. Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb was an accomplished pilot. Cobb worked with Lovelace to recruit an additional 19 more woman. Some were disqualified for various physical conditions. The NASA testing was privately funded by the well-known and accomplished female aviator Jacqueline Cochran. Cobb became the first American Female to experience and pass each phase of the NASA testing. Out of all the women who participated in the testing, thirteen of them passed all the tests that had been passed by the male Mercury astronauts.
The women who made up the Mercury 13 were Jerrie Cobb, Jean Hixson, Wally Funk, Marion Dietrich, Irene Leverton, Jan Dietrich, Myrtle "K" Cagle, Bernice "B" Trimble Steadman, Jane B. Hart, Sarah Gorelick, Gene Nora Stumbough, Rhea Hurrle and Jerri Sloan.
Each of the women chosen to participate in the program were skilled pilots. All of them had earned commercial ratings. Many of the women were recruited from an organization known as the Ninety-Nines; a female pilot's organization. Some learned about the NASA tests from newspaper articles, friends, and other pilots. The youngest candidate was a twenty-three year old flight instructor named Wally funk. Jane Hart was the oldest candidate. She was the wife of U. S. Senator, Philip Hart of Michigan, had eight children and was forty-one years old.
The program was privately-funded and received significant media coverage. It increased when the Soviet's were able to put the first woman into space. She was a cosmonaut named Valentina Tereshkova. She was launched into space on June 16, 1963. During this time, NASA was being criticized for not having an American woman launched into space. Details of the program including photographs of all 13 women who completed the training were then made available to the press. The country was beginning to realize if it had not been for NASA rules preventing women from flying space missions, the first women in space would have been an American.
This was a time when using astronauts for space exploration was a new idea. Physicians did not know what type of stresses the body of an astronaut would experience during their time in space. They tried to devise a series of tests that could determine who could endure space travel and who could not. The initial tests consisted of general body physicals as well as X-rays. The women had to swallow a rubber tube so the acids in their stomach could be tested. The reflexes of their ulnar nerves were tested using electric shock. There were attempts to induce vertigo. This was done by putting ice water into their ears as well as freezing their inner ear. Once this was done, physicians were able to record how quickly they recovered from the experience. The women were exercised to the point of exhaustion. This was done with weighted stationary bicycles, and their respiration was then tested. The women also endured a variety of more uncomfortable and invasive tests experienced by the men. When the testing was over, the thirteen women passed the same physical examinations developed for NASA's selection process for male astronauts from NASA.
Advanced Aeromedical Examinations
The next step in the journey toward becoming an astronaut would require the women to go to the Pensacola, Florida and visit the Naval School of Aviation Medicine. Once there, they were scheduled to experience advanced aeromedical examinations. This would be done using military equipment as well as jet aircraft. Two of the 13 women were so dedicated to becoming astronauts; they quit their jobs to attend the advanced aeromedical examinations. All 13 women got some bad news a few days before they were scheduled to be at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine. They received telegrams informing them the testing in Pensacola was canceled. There was no official request from NASA to perform the tests. Without this request, the US Navy would not permit the use of its facilities for this type of testing.
Attempts to Resume Testing
After the testing in Pensacola was canceled, Jerrie Cobb flew to Washington D.C. She was going to contact as many government officials as possible to reinstate the program. Cobb and fellow Mercury 13 member Janey Hart wrote to President John F. Kennedy expressing their frustrations at having the program canceled. They were able to speak with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. During July of 1962, a special Subcommittee of the Committee responsible for Science and Astronautics was convened. A public hearing on the issue of female astronauts took place. The goal of the hearings was to investigate any possible gender discrimination. Several members of the Mercury 13 testified before the committee. Jackie Cochran was a member of the Mercury 13 but gave negative testimony about the program. She testified that having a space program for women pilots could undermine the NASA space program. It was stated how NASA required all its astronauts to have earned degrees in engineering and have completed military jet training. At this time, it was revealed that well-known astronaut John Glenn did not meet the degree requirements.
During this time, women were prevented from attending Air Force training schools. This made it impossible for women to become military jet pilots. Many members of the Mercury 13 had worked as civilian test pilots. Most had significantly more time flying propeller aircraft than the male astronaut candidates. After all the information had been presented, NASA still refused to permit the members of Mercury 13 any type of equivalency for their time spent flying propeller airplanes.
Never In Space
No member of the Mercury 13 was ever able to make it into space. The program they participated in was never officially sanctioned by NASA. No female was selected as an astronaut candidate until Group 8 was started in 1978. This program was designed to choose astronauts for the Space Shuttle program. In 1983, Sally Ride became the first American female astronaut in space.
Today, the members of the Mercury 13 program are all considered trailblazers for American female astronauts. They often receive communication from people all over the world thanking them for what they attempted to achieve in the early 1960s. A documentary about their experiences was released in 1998 and was titled “Mercury 13: Secret Astronauts.” A book titled “The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of SpaceFlight” was released in 2004.