The Mercury 13, the First Lady Astronaut Trainees
April 24, 2019 1:53 PM   Subscribe

Before Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova ( became the first woman in space (previously), 25 women were privately tested with the same rigorous criteria as the original Mercury Seven (Wikipedia), and thirteen candidates were identified for further evaluation (The Ninety-Nines), before NASA forbid the testing from continuing. They didn't stop fighting for the right to be considered beside the male candidates, but it wouldn't be until 1983 that Astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. Last year, Netflix released a Mercury 13 documentary (YT, trailer), and they received mroe attention recently with the passing of Jerrie Cobb, an aviation pioneer and advocate for women in space (Ars Technica).

As summarized currently on Wikipedia, William Randolph Lovelace II (NM Space Museum), former Flight Surgeon and later, chairman of the NASA Special Advisory Committee on Life Science, helped develop the tests for NASA's male astronauts and tested the Mercury Seven. He was curious to know how women would do taking the same tests. In 1960, Lovelace and Brig. General Donald Flickinger invited Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb to undergo the same rigorous challenges as the men ( | Historical Perspectives, full paper), which lead to support and financial contributions from skilled, famed and wealthy aviator, Jacqueline Cochran (Wikipedia). Her support allowed Lovelace to test 25 women in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1959, as the "first lady astronaut trainees" (NASA History). Thirteen women passed these tests:
  1. Myrtle "K" Cagle (Encyclopedia Astronautica)
  2. Jerrie Cobb (David Darling)
  3. Janet Dietrich (Wikipedia)
  4. Marion Dietrich (Find a Grave memorial)
  5. Wally Funk (The Ninety-Nines)
  6. Jane Hart (NYT obituary; Women of Manhattanville memorial)
  7. Sarah Gorelick (later Ratley) (Mercury 13)
  8. Jean Hixson (Akron Women's History)
  9. Irene Leverton (Kingman, AZ, Daily Miner)
  10. Gene Nora Stumbough (later Jessen) (UW Oshkosh Mercury 13 biography)
  11. Jerri Sloan (later Truhill) (Wikipedia; trailer for She Should Have Gone to the Moon)
  12. Bernice "B" Steadman (Detroit Free Press, obituary)
  13. Rhea Woltman (Colorado Women's Hall of Fame)
(Cochran was also tested, but did not pass.)

The thirteen women were on their way to Florida for additional testing, when NASA heard of this effort and formally forbade further evaluations.

Jerrie Cobb and Jane Hart testified before Congress in 1962 (Hathi Trust) as to why they should be considered, as did Jacqueline Cochran, who was working closely with the Navy at the time. It was later said that the Navy wrote a statement for Cochran to read, or she could remain silent on the matter. Her testimony, along with comments from NASA representatives George Low and Astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter saw that the women could not qualify as astronaut candidates. The following year, Clare Boothe Luce wrote an article for LIFE magazine (Google books) publicizing the women and criticizing NASA, but this was the end of the path for the Mercury 13.

Even though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Wikipeida) outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, pilot training was a prerequisite for anyone wishing to be an astronaut, and the Air Force didn't open Undergraduate Pilot Training to women until 1976. Eileen Collins enrolled and passed, giving her the option to test and train to be an astronaut, which she did (Courier Press). In 1990, she became the first American female to pilot a Space Shuttle. She invited the remaining members of the Mercury 13 as her guests to a STS-63-related ceremony, and seven of the women were able to attend (We Are The Mighty).

Bonus links: Space Flight Insider | Women in Space, a History || Wikipedia | Women in Space, and List of female spacefarers || They Promised Her the Moon, a theatrical portrayal of Jerrie Cobb's life || They Promised Her the Moon, a YouTube playlist.
posted by filthy light thief (13 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, I had no idea Jerri Cobb died. She was something.

posted by suelac at 2:29 PM on April 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Mary Robinette Kowal's "Lady Astronaut" book series The Calculating Stars and The Faded Sky (and to be continued) is a fictionalized version of a lot of the events around the early space program, specifically dealing with women in the context of a timeline where a natural disaster has made it possible for them to proceed into space. I consider these books to be absolutely brilliant on many fronts and recommend them enthusiastically and without reservation.
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:44 PM on April 24, 2019 [15 favorites]

Neat, thanks for the recommendations!

There's an interesting bit of "what if" audio and visual trickery in the Netflix documentary, where they replace some of the audio of the first men on the moon with voices of women, and later they change some celebratory banners with women's names.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:54 PM on April 24, 2019

These ladies have been heroes of mine for a long time. I was astounded to learn of their story back in the eighties and thrilled to see the Netflix documentary last year. It's truly amazing how history teaches us over and over and over again that WHITE MEN ARE THE ABSOLUTE BEST AT EVERYTHING ... so long as they never have to compete against women or POC.

Thank you for this post, it's aces.
posted by pjsky at 4:24 PM on April 24, 2019 [5 favorites]

There is also Ian Sales's novella "Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (Apollo Quartet Book 3)" which I highly recommend for an alternative world view of that time. It is especially powerful when read with the 4th book in the quartet. "All That Outer Space Allows".

Very good SF.
posted by fallingbadgers at 5:27 PM on April 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

The fact that we had the opportunity to have an astronaut named Myrtle and didn’t take it is a real black mark on the space program.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 5:30 PM on April 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

The excellent Canadian investigative journalist Stephanie Nolen wrote a non-fiction book, Promised the Moon, about the Mercury women based on interviews with eleven of them. Well worth checking out.
posted by westmorelander at 7:02 PM on April 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

These women seem to come up often in various ways, and I'm always glad to see it when it happens. I feel like the women of history are becoming less and less invisible even as I watch. It's wonderful, and I fully support it any and every time women who aren't well known are brought forward, because damn they did a lot for all of us and fuck the patriarchy.
posted by hippybear at 8:21 PM on April 24, 2019 [6 favorites]

Hey I posted this on an earlier article but I think it's still relevant -- The Case for Female Astronauts: Reproducing Americans in the Final Frontier which talks about the ways we did (and still do) envision women in space -- just not as astronauts.
posted by Hypatia at 5:38 AM on April 25, 2019

NASA is still doing a bad job of putting anyone other than white men into space. The first class of astronauts in the Commercial Crew Program are 7 men (6 white) and 2 women.

At least they're doing better than Russian, who might be responsible for the first woman in space, but have only sent up three women since.
posted by thecjm at 6:20 AM on April 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

Another vote for The Calculating Stars. Very taut, intense, well imagined.
posted by doctornemo at 10:36 AM on April 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

This really really needs someone to find the narrative thread that makes for a good general release feature that pulls a bunch of really popular actresses in, like Ocean's Eight but with legit smart showing through.
posted by sammyo at 11:10 AM on April 25, 2019

I don't know why we need Yet Another Remake of Dune when The Calculating Stars is RIGHT THERE.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 7:27 PM on April 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

« Older Less moon, more scapes   |   Very Thin Ice Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments