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The first woman in space should be flat-chested. She should be lightweight, under 35, and married. She should take medication to eliminate her period. She should be “willing to risk sterility from possible radiation exposure.” So theorized a team of Look magazine editors who interviewed NASA doctors, engineers, and shrinks to dream up the ideal woman space traveler for a February 1960 cover story, “Should a Girl Be First in Space?”
“Researchers’ concerns about putting a woman into close quarters with men remained unspoken but were undeniably present in this description,” writes Margaret A. Weitekamp in her first book, Right Stuff, Wrong Sex. “Space scientists sought to assure themselves that the woman who would be locked inside a cramped spacecraft would be the boyishly built wife of one of the crew members, not a buxom single woman who might bring her sexuality on board with her.”
Inspired by controversial studies that suggested women were better suited than men for space travel, Look’s article hit newsstands at a time when many experts believed that “women’s biggest obstacle to being first in space [was the] cultural bias against exposing them to hazardous situations,” reports Weitekamp, curator of the Division of Space History at the National Air and Space Museum. At the forefront of these studies was Dr. William Randolph Lovelace, who, with the financial backing of world-famous pilot Jacqueline Cochran, would launch the Women in Space program, which challenged society’s attitude toward women’s roles and capabilities.
In Right Stuff, Wrong Sex, Weitekamp documents the triumphs and trials of Lovelace’s candidates and examines the program’s rise and fall within the context of the Cold War and the thriving aviation culture of the ’50s. “This history is so interesting because it’s looking at a time period when there’s a program testing women as possible astronauts when it’s very clear that women in the actual astronaut core have no future,” she says.
Weitekamp first heard of Women in Space in 1995, after National Public Radio had broadcast a segment on Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot a space shuttle, and it was noted that Collins had invited Lovelace’s women to her launch.
“Why have I not heard of these women?” Weitekamp remembers thinking. “This is an amazing story.” Intrigued, the 33-year-old Alexandria resident wanted to learn more. But she soon discovered that little had been written about the program. “I thought, If I can work this out to be my dissertation project, this would be a great book,” says Weitekamp, who would later earn her doctorate in history from Cornell University.
“Other people who had attempted to untangle the confusing threads of this story had given up in frustration,” Weitekamp says. No single source of information existed, so she traversed the country to comb archives, photocopy letters and documents, and interview many of the women who participated in Lovelace’s program, including Jerrie Cobb, the first woman to undergo astronaut testing.
The former women’s-studies teacher even took flying lessons. “It became clear to me that the women I was talking to and who are at the heart of this story identify themselves as pilots first,” she says. “[I]f I wanted to have some sense of how they saw the world…I needed to get up in a private aircraft.”
Weitekamp believes the time is right for the history of women in space to be revealed, and credits women in the military and commercial airlines for the “slow breaking of institutional barriers” that could be felt in force by the ’70s. “The acceptance, the way that each of those women slowly proved herself as competent, made people change their minds.”
—Heather Morgan Shott