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Wander around the Kennedy Space Center for a while. Check out the shiny metal suits worn by the first astronauts. Try to cram yourself into the actual-size mockups of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules. It doesn’t take long for the truth to sink in: Space was conquered by short people. Five-eleven was the vertical limit for the earliest round of rocket jockeys, dubbed the Mercury 7—group photos of Eisenhower’s anointed show Gus Grissom looking as though he’d just taken the third race at Pimlico. Smaller meant lighter, of course, and engineers emphasized the burden placed on their systems by every extra pound. But the most significant weight-saving measure was never seriously considered. When NASA set up its cosmic cowboy clubhouse, the sign outside was plain as day: No girls allowed.
The story of the female pilots who yearned for a chance to shoot for the stars has remained largely a space-race footnote, barely acknowledged by NASA and little known outside aviation circles. In her exhaustively researched yet thoroughly readable history The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream
of Space Flight, Mount Holyoke women’s-studies prof Martha Ackmann sheds light on this unfortunate chapter in the annals of the American century, as well as on the determination of the women who challenged a society dead set on keeping them grounded.
The story begins in 1959 at the Lovelace Foundation, a medical center in Albuquerque, N.M., that was often contracted by the government to conduct secret research. One of its assignments had been the physical testing of the male Project Mercury hopefuls. Scientific curiosity and fear of Soviet advances motivated foundation head Randy Lovelace and Air Force Brig. Gen. Donald Flickinger to look into the qualifications of women for spaceflight. An Air Force Association meeting put them in touch with 28-year-old Jerrie Cobb, an executive pilot and marketing manager with Oklahoma City-based Aero Design and Engineering.
The men knew NASA wasn’t interested in women candidates—Flickinger had already asked. But their plans weren’t so easily thwarted. Because the clinic was an independent civilian facility, Lovelace could forge ahead on his own as long as he could find the money. “I continue to have a keen personal interest in [testing women pilots] and believe it eventually should be done on as scientifically sound a basis as possible,” Flickinger wrote.
Cobb, one of the country’s most accomplished female pilots, would prove to be an ideal subject. Taciturn, athletic, difficult to rattle, and lucky enough to work for a boss who supported her ambitions, she checked into the Bird of Paradise, a seedy motel conveniently located across the street from the Lovelace clinic, in February 1960.
She received exactly the same scrutiny as the men who had preceded her. There were X-rays, blood work, vision tests, multiple barium enemas, a radiation count at Los Alamos, and an excruciating test of equilibrium that involved dripping cold water directly onto the eardrum. Cobb passed with flying colors. Although turned away by Ohio’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (where Flickinger had run afoul of his superiors, causing him to turn the testing program entirely over to Lovelace), she was able to receive stress testing at a NASA facility in Cleveland. There she was strapped into a giant gyroscope called the MASTIF. “Even if one had the stomach for carnival Tilt-A-Whirl rides, the MASTIF was in a nausea-producing category all by itself,” Ackmann writes. “Project Mercury astronauts ‘graduated’ from MASTIF testing when they were able to bring the rig under control while doing thirty revolutions per minute on all three axes.”
After her trials were publicized in Life, Cobb set about assembling a list of candidates who could follow in her wake. Women were almost always denied test-pilot experience, so Cobb looked for racing histories and high flight-hour counts. Drawing on Federal Aviation Administration records and the membership roster of the Ninety-Nines, the international association of aviatrixes started by Amelia Earhart, she forwarded names to Lovelace, who mailed out invitations. Friends recommended friends, and eventually 18 more women would be forced to reckon with the unflushable toilets and unchanged sheets of the Bird of Paradise.
The 12 who passed the tests were a varied lot, from headstrong 22-year-old flight instructor Wally Funk to 40-year-old senator’s wife and mother of eight Janey Hart. Sarah Gorelick quit her job with AT&T so she could pursue testing. When Jerri Sloan, the 30-year-old proprietor of Air Services of Dallas, which tested next-generation aerial surveillance systems, returned home, her drunkard husband, who had hounded her over the phone while she was away, presented her with divorce papers.
NASA wasn’t sponsoring the tests, so that role was filled by longtime Lovelace patron Jackie Cochran, the former head of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, in World War II and arguably the most famous female pilot in the country. Having been born into poverty in Florida and grown up as Bessie Mae Pittman, she relocated to New York, where in a few short years she had moved from working as a beautician at Saks to snagging a wealthy man and flying herself around to promote her own line of cosmetics. Unable to qualify herself for reasons of age and possibly health, she nevertheless saw to it that her husband, industrialist Floyd Odlum, picked up the tab.
Although Ackmann well understands Cochran’s self-mythologizing bent, she makes her only serious misstep in failing to get to the bottom of the woman’s biography. Granted, it’s a trying task; the Internet is filled with competing versions. Several correspondents to Florida International University’s ALLSTAR Network who claim to be Pittman kin contradict an assertion, accepted by Ackmann, that Cochran was raised by a foster family and possibly never knew her biological parents. What is certain is that Cochran was a conniving, vindictive egomaniac who couldn’t stand to be bested. She used her husband’s high-society heft and financial leverage over Lovelace to undertake a campaign to wrest leadership of the candidate group from Cobb, on one occasion attempting to get Cobb removed as keynote speaker at a symposium on women in space, a slot Cochran herself had turned down. After one of her own public appearances, Cochran screamed at a member of the 13 offended by her impolitic remarks, “Jerrie Cobb isn’t running this program. I am!”
Meanwhile, Cobb was entering “Phase Two” of her testing, psychological screening at the Veterans Administration hospital in Oklahoma City. The crucial trial took place in a Lilly isolation tank. (Movie buffs will recognize John C. Lilly as the scientist who inspired both 1973’s The Day of the Dolphin and 1980’s Altered States.) A driven woman who kept her own counsel and could be acerbic if pushed, Cobb stayed in longer than any other isotank subject before her. Following a nine-hour-and-40-minute run, she was pronounced to be a “girl who excels in loneliness.” Little did the assistant who cut short Cobb’s test know that teammate Rhea Hurrle would go for 10 hours. Funk would drift still a half-hour more, completely silent. For their test, the Mercury men had merely spent two or three hours in a dark room, where John Glenn occupied his mind by composing inspirational doggerel.
The “Phase Three” tests assessed reactions to the rigors of spaceflight. Lovelace arranged for Cobb to undergo 10 days of testing at the U.S. Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Pensacola, Fla. She completed a pressure-suit mobility test and an airborne EEG. She had a go on the “Dilbert Dunker,” which simulated a water-landing escape, and took her turn in the “slow-rotation room,” a disorientation chamber in which she was required to resist visual evidence to complete a range of tasks. After Cobb passed, plans were made for the other 12 women to fly to Pensacola in September 1961.
It never happened. Less than a week before testing was to begin, following some maneuvering from Cochran, who at that point was insisting that any female astronaut training not interfere with the program that had already launched two men into suborbital flights, NASA shut down the Navy tests.
Realizing that scientific evidence didn’t count for much in a political fight, Cobb joined forces with Washington insider Hart to lobby for the cause. They found a supporter in the vice president’s office: Liz Carpenter, Lyndon Johnson’s press representative, drafted a letter for him to send to NASA chief James Webb, urging the space agency to look into the qualifications of female astronauts. A meeting with Johnson was secured for Cobb and Hart, but they sensed that he was putting on a political performance for their benefit. They didn’t know that he would scrawl across Carpenter’s draft, “Lets Stop This Now!”
Cobb and Hart proceeded to bring their case before Congress; they were able to persuade the House Committee on Science and Astronautics to investigate alleged gender discrimination by NASA, presenting their arguments on July 17, 1962. But their efforts were soon undone. Cochran followed them, advising against opening the Air Force Academy to women so that they might acquire the jet training her social connections had already won her—and warning that money spent schooling female astronauts might be wasted when they later chose family over career. It amounted to sabotage.
Hart, for one, had received a preview of Cochran’s likely testimony and had already drawn her conclusions: “Maybe she just wanted more trophies for the foyer, more headlines and accolades,” Ackmann writes. “If Jackie Cochran could not become the first woman in space, perhaps she did not want any other woman to have the chance.”
The following morning, Earth-orbit vets John Glenn and Scott Carpenter delivered their testimony on the matter. “[C]learly more comfortable commenting on prejudice than actively fighting against it,” according to Ackmann, newly minted national hero Glenn attributed the exclusion of women to the current “social order,” before concluding with an appeal to thrift: “Now, to spend many millions of dollars to additionally qualify other people, whom we don’t particularly need, regardless of sex, creed, or color, doesn’t seem right, when we already have these qualified people.” Cobb didn’t need to read the headlines the next day to know that, three years after she had signed on with Lovelace, her spaceflight dream was a no-go.
In less than two years, Glenn would be the first of the Mercury 7 to leave NASA, squandering all that valuable training on a political career he was soon forced to postpone when he slipped and fell in his bathroom. (Ackmann is too fair-minded to point out how Glenn spent the rest of the ’60s, but taxpayers should be proud to know that it was as an RC Cola executive.) By late summer 1974, only two of the seven original astronauts remained; the others had been replaced—by newly trained white men.
Although every reader knows at the outset that, whatever precedent
it set, the women’s attempt was doomed, Ackmann finds her way to the complex drama that lies behind their failure. That she is able to weave a captivating story out of events whose highlights are a congressional hearing and multiple rounds of scientific testing is a credit to her narrative skills. Shunning glib group hagiography, she discovers heroes and villains on both sides of the gender divide. In a tale rife with cowardice, bigotry, double-dealing, backbiting, and infighting, she keeps us mindful of the hope that things could’ve turned out differently.
The social order did eventually change, and in 1983 Space Coast well-wishers chanted, “Ride, Sally Ride!” as the space shuttle Challenger carried America’s first female astronaut aloft. And in 1999, when Eileen Collins was named commander of the Columbia, a woman finally took the helm of a spaceship. (Collins was quick to acknowledge the importance of her predecessors. “What if they had failed those tests?…They gave us a history,” she told Ackmann.) There are plenty of reasons it didn’t happen 35 years earlier—but, as Cobb once put it, “none of them legitimate,” CP