More than 20 years before Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, and three decades before Eileen Collins became the first American woman to command a space shuttle, 13 daring and determined female pilots put their careers, relationships and reputations on the line to try to become astronauts.
In her book The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight, Martha Ackmann skillfully tells the story of the Mercury 13, the group of women who began testing to see if they could meet the same qualifications as NASA’s male astronauts.
Learning about the barriers these women faced is frustrating but also important because it’s something that often gets shoved under the rug when we’re learning about the history of space exploration. For example, for these exemplary female pilots to even get into testing was a hurdle. Early on the doctor in charge of testing, Randy Lovelace, tried to work with Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to use their facilities. After 58-year-old pilot Ruth Nichols excelled in tests at the base, because of fear of a media scandal. Ackmann writes:
“Discovering that women were stronger and more physically capable than assumed might also challenge the military’s assertion of male strength, bravery, and superiority…Wright-Patteron officers simply preferred not to know what women pilots could do rather than face the possibility of ‘adverse publicity’ that might accompany new scientific understanding of women.”
Jerrie Cobb was one of the first Mercury 13 women to go through testing. Ackmann describes the battery of just the first round of tests she and the other women endured – 75 in total, including “tilt tables, electrical stimulation to the nerves, three feet of rubber hose slithered down her throat, exhausting physical endurance exercises…radiation counts, and the nightly dose of humility – barium enemas.”
Though the women’s preliminary results were exemplary, in some cases surpassing the men’s results under even more strenuous conditions (three women broke records for time in a sensory deprivation tank), the testing was cut short and the women were denied the chance to ever become astronauts.
However, they didn’t give up, with Cobb and some of the other women taking their case all the way to a U.S. Congressional hearing, although they were not all unified on how much and how fast to challenge the sexist status quo. And astronaut John Glenn, recently a national hero for becoming the first American to orbit the Earth, didn’t help much by testifying that the gender divide at NASA was merely “a fact of our social order.”
Editorial cartoons and columnists across the country were divided on the issue, but several mocked the women:
“Let them vote. Let them wear pants. Let them shoot pool. But please, Mr. Vice President, don’t let them get into space,” wrote a science writer in the Dallas Times-Herald.
Ackmann’s history illuminates the politics within NASA and in Washington, D.C. that ended up scuppering the women’s chances.
She also makes sure to note that despite the barriers these women faced, they were all white, and women of colour were not even permitted to get as far as they did. Greater discrimination meant women of colour pilots often had a much harder time gaining he experience and hours needed to qualify. And though Cobb attempted to bring in pilots from other countries to help diversify the group, Lovelace blocked them.
Similarly, African-American men were facing discrimination in the space program at the time. When Cobb and another Mercury 13 woman, Janey Hart, met with Vice President Johnson, he argued women couldn’t be allowed into the space program partly because NASA would then have to cave to pressure to let “minorities” into space too.
But the message of Ackmann’s book is ultimately inspiring.
Janey Hart became one of the first board members of the National Organization for Women (NOW), after Betty Friedan read Hart’s congressional testimony on female astronauts and decided to get in touch. Other Mercury 13 members dedicated themselves to speaking out publicly until a woman was finally allowed to command a space shuttle
Ackmann brings back the forgotten stories of these women, helping make sure that we remember the sacrifices they made and the injustices they faced, but also how much their contributions meant for not just women in NASA, but gender equality in American society overall.
Top photo of the Mercury 13 women in 1995 is a public domain photo from NASA’s archives.