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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

The Women’s Space Program That Wasn’t: The Story of the Mercury 13

The story of the Mercury 13, as it is usually told, features 13 heroes, 2 villains, and a throng of supportive roles stretched between them in the grey. It is the story of a young institution repeatedly doubling down on shaky starting premises, a few highly placed politicians damning a worthy project through inaction, and one profound betrayal that thrust defeat on the shoulders of near victory.


It will make you very angry, or at least it should, as an example of a nation rewarding bravery with humiliation.


But it also offers the consolation, or at least it might, that scorn and mockery, however thickly applied, can result in the awakening of mighty forces that nudge the world to achieve its best instincts towards fairness and equality.


For three years, between 1960 and 1962, there was a hope, though slim, that NASA would put energy and resources behind a women’s space program. When the space race began on the heels of Sputnik in 1957, an arbitrary decision was made that American astronauts would come from the ranks of military test pilots. Test pilots were accustomed to speed, complex instrumentation, and the stress of working on the fringe of the physically possible, it was reasoned, and so would make the best pioneers for humanity’s journey into space. The problem, of course, was that because of restrictions of access, military test pilots were all men.


America possessed dozens of women pilots with thousands of hours of flight experience across dozens of different single and multi engine airplanes, but they were kept strictly away from the testing of military jets, and therefore were not among the candidates for the original Mercury program. As a result, for two years, while NASA was running the male astronaut hopefuls through batteries of physical fitness tests, collecting invaluable data about how the male physiology responded to different stresses and strains, it was learning precisely nothing about how women might respond to those same conditions.


Jerrie Cobb, photo by NASA


One arbitrary decision led to another in a chain of causation that made it harder and harder to argue for women’s inclusion in the space program. Because only men were tested, only men’s physiologies were known, and because only theirs were known, all of the equipment being developed was specific to male dimensions and needs. A devilish ratchet was in the works – the more patient women were about delaying their entry to the space program, the further NASA went in developing male-specific technologies, and the easier it was to deny them entry into the space program because, after all, all of the devices were made for men, and wouldn't it be a shame to go back and start all over again?


It was clear that women’s patience was being fashioned into a weapon against their ever joining the space program, and that somebody needed to step forward and begin the process of actually determining how women stacked up against the male astronauts in physical and psychological testing to establish something like a baseline for comparison. Fortunately, the first person to rigorously do so was also one of the leading names in aerospace health and medicine, Randolph Lovelace. He was NASA’s go-to expert on medical testing for potential astronauts, and he believed passionately that an opportunity was being missed in not testing women. Might women not have physical properties in terms of body mass, oxygen consumption, and resistance to extremes of temperature and motion, that might make them better candidates than men for the space program, and if so, shouldn't we find that out sooner, while the system is still developing itself, rather than later, when we’ll already be too committed to a less than optimal system to efficiently reform it?


The official bureaucracy was not acting to correct the massive gap in their knowledge base, so Lovelace decided to start investigating the issue independently using the resources of his Lovelace Foundation, which had been intimately involved in the testing of the original Mercury astronaut candidates. Working with General Donald Flickinger, he chose one of America’s most famous women aviators to begin secret preliminary testing: Jerrie Cobb.


An Oklahoma native, Cobb had spent her life clawing her way into aviation history. A craver of solitude, she undertook long cargo journeys across the globe in all manner of single and twin engine aircraft, racking up 10,000 hours of flight time that gave her more cockpit experience than any of the male astronauts chosen for the Mercury program (though no jet experience), and she held three different world records for speed, altitude, and distance by the time Lovelace and Flickinger tapped her as their first experimental subject. Over the next two years, it would be Cobb who led the cause of the Mercury 13 to the office of the Vice President and the Halls of Congress, and after it was all over it would be she who drifted furthest afield as she attempted to put the frustrations of the past behind her.


In February of 1960, however, Cobb had nothing but an exciting future ahead of her as she began her testing at the Lovelace facilities. Tough, practical, and capable of unparalleled feats of concentration, she performed as well on the medical tests as the Mercury astronauts, and surpassed them in some respects. Her case showed that women could not only get by as astronauts, but might even excel in ways that NASA hadn't even bothered to test. Excited by the results, Lovelace began planning to extend the testing to more candidates, to prove that Cobb was not a mere statistical fluke. He assembled a list of likely women aviators, and asked Cobb for her recommendations for more.


And he brought one other person into the project as well, an addition that would prove darkly fateful to the women’s space effort. Jacqueline Cochran was at the time perhaps the world’s most famous living woman aviator and a genuine hero. She had organised the WASPs during the Second World War to provide crucial women pilots for the war effort, was the first woman to break the sound barrier, and held more air records than we can possibly recount here. She was a superstar whose marriage to a grotesquely wealthy and influential industrialist, Floyd Odlum, gave her access to resources that most women did not have, most particularly hours in the cockpit of various military and civilian jets. Unfortunately, she did not see her privileged possession of these opportunities as a sign of something systemically wrong with women’s access to the higher echelons of aviation, but instead tended to denigrate women who couldn't obtain those restricted resources as Not Wanting It Enough.


Jacqueline Cochran


Her fundamentally conservative approach to governmental structures would eventually doom the Mercury 13 and set women’s space flight back two decades, but at the start her influence was largely positive. She made suggestions for pilots, and offered to cover travel expenses for the candidates traveling to the Foundation for the tests. Cobb and Lovelace narrowed down a field of some eight hundred candidates to a couple dozen, Cochran paid the bills, and the first round of testing began, at the end of which twelve women, ranging in ages from 21 to 41, proved themselves the equals of the original Mercury 7.


The press went mad for the women aviators who were equaling and besting the military’s best and brightest, but NASA remained unmoved, citing the fact that they were too deep into designing systems for the men to consider putting aside resources to even test women further, let alone develop equipment for them. Undeterred, Cobb decided, on her own initiative, to undergo the second set of trials, psychological tests that determined whether an astronaut would mentally go to pieces or not under the pressures of space flight and surrounded by the total stillness of space. One of the most disorienting and mentally challenging of tests was the isolation chamber, in which candidates were sealed in a room without light or sound and left there. The male astronauts were placed in a simple dark room which had chairs and a table and managed to stay there a couple of hours.


Cobb, and the few women who could manage to come after her, were subjected to a much more thorough test – a full isolation chamber in which they floated naked in body-temperature water in total darkness and silence. Most who entered found the experience so unsettling that they left within an hour, and those who remained had a tendency to wildly hallucinate as their brains latched on for something, anything, to call real. Cobb stayed in for six hours and showed no signs of hallucination or panic, and two of the Mercury 13 who followed improved even upon that marathon of calm in the face of total isolation, putting thereby to a definitive end the myth that women lacked the psychological capacity to deal with the stillness of the cosmic void.


What was to follow ought to have been a third and final round of endurance testing to definitively determine the relative capacities of men and women as astronaut candidates. These Phase Three tests were to be carried out in Pensacola at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine. Cobb was able to take the Phase Three tests and characteristically passed them all, but just when it was time to invite the other twelve hopefuls, the entire program was suddenly cancelled. The Navy refused to allow the use of their facilities for a project that NASA was very actively not requesting.


Jerrie Cobb, photo by NASA


NASA had been vigorously insisting that it had no plans for a women’s astronaut program, and that they were far too busy getting the men into space to even consider the utility of starting to consider to test women. Meanwhile, within the small group pushing for the resumption of testing, the first strains of dissension were stirring. Cochran, who many considered harbored some resentment at not being considered for the program herself, showed an unfortunate side in her character as she saw Cobb assume the mantle of spokesperson and chief strategist for the group. While Cobb went across the country with fellow Mercury 13 member and Congressional wife Jane Hart, arguing that testing must be allowed to resume, Cochran wrote increasingly testy letters to her longtime friend Lovelace expressing agitation at her diminishing leadership of the group and disapproval of Cobb’s tactics and message. She wrote to NASA chief James Webb outlining her own position, that women should only be considered after men had accomplished the first milestones, and only if it wouldn't be too much of a drain on their resources to do so.


Public support was with the Thirteen, but when Cobb and Hart brought their message to Washington, those who declared themselves allies went on to use precisely none of their influence to further the Mercury 13’s cause, culminating in a meeting with Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who expressed sympathy in person but wrote ‘Let’s Stop This Now!’ across a statement drafted by one of his staff urging NASA to reconsider its stance. There would be no help from Johnson, but after much lobbying there was going to be one last chance – a Congressional hearing to investigate whether the astronaut selection process had demonstrated gender discrimination, and whether efforts should be taken to begin the process of admitting women to the astronaut program.


The chairperson was sympathetic, and on the first day Cobb and Hart combined to deliver profound testimony about the advantages of women astronauts from a scientific standpoint, the qualifications of the women who had passed the tests so far, and the fundamental unfairness of the selection criteria and arguments used by NASA and the government to date. It was a powerful opening, but was almost immediately undercut when the next speaker stepped forward: aviation icon Jacqueline Cochran. She devoted her time to downplaying the difficulties women had in accruing hours on jets, warning of the dangers of spending money to train women who would likely just get pregnant anyway, stating that women should not be allowed in the Air Force Academy, and insisting that the women’s space program be delayed indefinitely so long as the country possessed plenty of good male candidates who had already been selected.


It was devastating testimony from perhaps the most respected woman aviator in the country, and it was amplified the next day when astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter reiterated her point: with men trained and available, why spend the time and money to test women? There was to be a third day, when Cobb and Hart would have had an opportunity to rebut the misconceptions and deliberate falsehoods that had been injected into the record, but the chairperson, starstruck by the presence of Cochran and Glenn, had made up his mind that he had heard all he needed to hear, and cancelled the third day of testimony.


It was over.


The Mercury 13 would never touch space.


Mercury 13 Reunion, Photo by NASA


After the final defeat in Congress, Jerrie Cobb went to South America to lose herself as a mission pilot, flying desperately needed supplies in dangerous conditions across the continent. She had 10,000 flight hours when she was tapped by Lovelace to begin the testing program, nearly twice as much as the most experienced of the Mercury 7. She died March 18, 2019, at the age of 88.


Jane Briggs Hart was an airplane and helicopter pilot, the oldest of the Thirteen, and the wife of a Congressman. Her testimony at the Congressional Hearing caught the attention of Betty Friedan, and the two subsequently worked closely together to form the National Organization for Women in 1966. She died in 2015.


Myrtle Cagle had 4000 hours of pilot experience at the time of the testing program, more than any of the Mercury 7 except John Glenn. She was a flight instructor and member of the Civil Air Patrol.


Janet and Marion Dietrich were identical twins and intercontinental air race champions. After Mercury, Janet was a federal pilot examiner and commercial aviator, the first woman in America to earn an Airline Transport Pilot License. Marion died in 1974, and Janet in 2008.


Wally Funk was the youngest of the Thirteen, and a champion of the isolation chamber. She is now 83 years old, with 19,000 flight hours under her belt and over 3000 students to her credit, as well as a long career in aviation outreach and federal inspection.


Sarah Gorelick was the only member of the Thirteen with a degree in science, a Bachelor’s in Mathematics with a minor in Physics and Chemistry. She had to give up her job in order to have the time to attend the testing sessions, and upon their abrupt cancellation she became an accountant at the IRS. She died in 2020.


Jerri Sloan was Cobb’s first choice to join the program, and had flown everything from racing planes to B-25 bombers by the time of the Mercury tests. She died in 2013.

Bernice Steadman had 8,000 hours flight experience when she joined the tests, and was the owner of a flight school in Flint, Michigan. She also earned an Airline Transport Rating after the end of the program, and co-founded the International Women’s Air and Space Museum. She died in 2015.


Irene Leverton was a charter pilot with 9000 hours of experience when the call came, but her employer was unwilling to give her time-off to undergo the testing. She ultimately lost her job as a result of trying to become an astronaut, and after a brief period of virtual homelessness, finally found a job at Hawthorne Aviation. She died in 2017.


Jean Hixson was the second woman to break the sound barrier, flew B-25s as an engineering pilot for the WASP in World War II, and was a Colonel in the Air Force Reserves until she retired in 1982. She died of cancer in 1984.


Rhea Woltman was a commercial and derby pilot, a seaplane pilot, and eventually a glider pilot subsequent to the end of her astronaut testing. She died in 2021 at the age of 92.


Gene Nora Stumbough was the only one of the Thirteen to actively side with Cochran’s program. She served as president of the Ninety-Nines, the women’s aviation group founded by Amelia Earhart, and was a Beechcraft spokespilot.



FURTHER READING:


There are several books on the Mercury 13 to choose from - Martha Ackmann's The Mercury 13 (2003), Margaret Weitekamp's Right Stuff, Wrong Sex (2004), and Amy Shira Teitel's Fighting for Space (2020) are all excellent choices.


If you'd like to read more about women astronomers like this one, check out my History of Women in Astronomy and Space Exploration, which you can order from Amazon, or from Pen and Sword US or UK.



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