Working at a library, I often come across some incredible books. I came across this book recently:
“Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream” by Tanya Lee Stone
As a woman and as a space geek, I was amazed that I had never heard of these women. I of course had to check out the book and read about these amazing trailblazers of the early space industry.
It all started in the thick of the space race, and the Mercury 7, (Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and Gordon Cooper) were chosen to pioneer the US adventures in space. Dr. Randy Lovelace II was the head of NASA’s Special Committee of Bioastronautics, and was a bit of a forward-thinker for his time. He believed that women should be considered for astronaut candidacy. At the time, women could not get bank loans, could not play professional sports, or of course, go to space.
Dr. Lovelace had his own firm that developed the physical testing for the astronaut candidates, and began a privately-fundedexperiment of testing women pilots for spaceflight. Pilot Jerrie Cobb, (right, standing next to a Mercury Capsule), was the first women to go through this testing. She had to have hundreds of x-rays taken, have her lung capabilities tested, have freezing water injected in his ears to induce vertigo, undergo intense psychological testing, and more. She took sensory-deprivation testing in an isolation tank. The Mercury 7 had to spend two to three hours in a dark room; two days of this testing was equivalent to fifteen minutes in the isolation tank… Jerrie Cobb spent a whopping 9 hours and 40 minutes in the tank, shattering ALL previous records. Not only did she outperform the Mercury 7 in nearly every test, but she did it without complaint and with a smile on her face. Lovelace shared his results in conference, believing it may tip the tides for women in spaceflight, and began testing with twelve other women. The thirteen women, also called the Mercury 13, are listed here:
- Jerrie Cobb
- Wally Funk
- Irene Leverton
- Myrtle “K” Cagle
- Jane Hart
- Gene Nora Stumbough [Jessen]
- Jerri Sloan [Truhill]
- Rhea Hurrle [Woltman]
- Sarah Gorelick [Ratley]
- Bernice “B” Trimble Steersman
- Jan Dietrich
- Marion Dietrich
- Jean Hixson
L-R: Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cage, and Bernice Steadman at a space shuttle launch, guests of Astronaut Eileen Collins
Unfortunately, due to politics, the testing was cut short when Lovelace could no longer access necessary military facilities. The fight was far from over, though.
Jerrie Cobb and Jane Hart, the oldest candidate and wife of a U.S. Senator, decided to go to Washington and fight for women’s right to become astronauts. They went up against Congress. Mercury 7 astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter spoke against women going to space (which I found to be a huge disappointment, being that I’ve always looked up to John Glenn), and between Congress and then vice-president Lyndon B. Johnson’s adamant dismissal of the program, it never came to fruition. In fact, it was later revealed long after LBJ’s political career, that his main opposition to women going to space was because then minority ethnic groups would also push to be considered. This is so crazy to me, especially because LBJ passed so much anti-discrimination legislation during his time as president. Unfortunately, as wrong as NASA and the politics were at the time, these women never did make it to space.
I am so appreciative and grateful for the great strides that previous women before me have made, and for the path they have paved for a girl like me to work in the space industry. These ladies will forever be my idols and heroes, and I hope for more to hear of their story.
For more information, you can check out these sites:
as well as “Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream” by Tanya Lee Stone, the amazing book that introduced these women to me.