Women in Space

I thought I’d post about something most people don’t seem to know about, that I’ve run across in my research.

In the early days of spaceflight, NASA made the not-unreasonable decision that astronauts would be drawn from the ranks of high-performance test pilots. At that time, mostly due to long-time stereotypes and discriminatory norms, all such test pilots were white males.

Ergo, all crews for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, in addition to the Air Forces MOL program, were made up of males and all but a couple of the MOL astronauts were white.
In 1961, Randy Lovelace, whose Albequeque medical research clinic had been tasked by NASA to test Mercury astronaut candidates for fitness, invited female aviator Jerrie Cobb to take the test. She did as well as or better than several of the qualifying male astronauts. When Randy reported this to his friend, the world-famous female pilot and record breaker, Jackie Cochran, she agreed to pay to have a couple of dozen more women tested.

Most of the women were drawn from the ranks of Jackie’s organization of lady flyers, “The Ninety-Nines.” Many washed out, unsurprisingly given the small sample size (Lovelace had tested something like 400 men for Mercury), but 13 had performance comparable to the best of the men.

This intrigued Lovelace, who observed that women weigh less, eat less, burn less oxygen, and need less water, all important considerations in sending astronauts into space. He made arrangements to send “The Mercury 13” on to the second of three phases of testing, but this depended on a handshake agreement with a contact in the Navy. About this time, the media got wind, the flags of controversy flew, and the military pulled out, and that was that.

Jerrie Cobb felt she had been lied to. This seems unlikely, as not only Randy Lovelace but the other ladies have stated that he made it clear from the beginning that this was a science project unaffiliated with NASA. Nevertheless, Jerrie and Jane Hart went to complain to LBJ, who was then Vice President, that women should be given a shot. LBJ may or may not have said encouraging things to Jerrie. If he did, he was lying. When his aide drafted an innocuous letter to NASA director James Webb indicting that, while of course the idea was absurd, NASA should still look into the idea for appearances, LBJ wrote across the top, “Let’s stop this now!”

So Jerrie pressed on until she got a congressional hearing, where none other than the first American to orbit the earth, Mercury Astronaut John Glenn testified that men do the flying and women stay home “because that is our social order.” Wow.

Then Jackie Cochran submitted a letter to the hearing in which she undercut the “astronettes” saying the effort to beat the Russians in space would be compromised if NASA diverted resources to train women for spaceflight.

To modern eyes, this all seems hard to fathom. However, it really would have been absurd for NASA to include women in these early efforts, which really did call for the calm nerves of experienced high-performance test pilots. The real issue is that woman had not been welcomed into the engineering and test pilot ranks after WWII. If they had been, then some of them would doubtless have been ready and able to fly in these early space efforts.

As it was, Russia flew a woman (whose only qualification was her skydiving hobby) and then on the basis of her having supposedly performed less than perfectly, didn’t fly another for 17 years until the US was about to.
But this all has a neat finish. When Eileen Collins commanded Space Shuttle Columbia in 1995 she invited the surviving members of The Mercury 13 to watch the launch as her guests. Candidate Wally Funk went on to become the first women air crash investigator. Jerrie Cobb went on to get a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work using air service to deliver aid in the developing world.

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So you see, these women may not have had the credentials NASA wanted for the first tentative steps into space, but they definitely had the right stuff.