The Mercury 13
On February 14, 1960, Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb arrived at the sprawling Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and prepared to make history. At age 30, Cobb was already one of the world’s most accomplished female pilots, having been the first woman to fly the Paris Air Show and holding three world records for speed, distance, and absolute altitude for light aircraft. But all these accomplishments paled next to the challenge that now lay before her, for Cobb was about to brave the same battery of medical tests that had been used to select the Mercury Seven, America’s first astronauts.
On December 17, 1958, more than a year after the launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, the newly-formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced the creation of Project Mercury, America’s first manned space program. The goals of Project Mercury were to place a man in orbit, evaluate whether he could effectively live and work there, and return him safely to the earth. Yet despite these relatively modest aims, the technological challenge was immense, with much of the required technology – from rockets and spacecraft to guidance and life support systems to a worldwide orbital tracking system – having to be adapted from existing military equipment or developed from scratch. Yet the greatest unknown was the human who would occupy the spacecraft itself – the astronaut.
In the late 1950s, little was known about the effects of spaceflight on the human body, with doctors variously speculating that microgravity might disorient and incapacitate an astronaut, cause their eyeballs to deform, or make swallowing food impossible. Given these unknowns, at first NASA struggled to decide just who to send into space. While a variety of candidates were initially put forth including circus performers, race car drivers, mountaineers, deep-sea divers, and other adventurers, in the end the selection committee narrowed their focus to an altogether rarer breed: military test pilots. Test pilots, NASA reasoned, were already tough, resourceful, cool under pressure, and accustomed to handling experimental vehicles under extreme conditions. Based on this decision the committee produced a set of selection criteria which were distributed to all military test flying establishments. According to these requirements, the ideal astronaut candidate was under 40 years old and 5 feet 11 inches in height, married, in peak physical condition, a qualified jet test pilot with at least 1500 hours flying time, and possessed a bachelor’s degree in engineering.
Of 508 total submissions 32 pilots were selected for final evaluation, being subjected to a gruelling series of physical and psychological tests intended to push their bodies and minds to their absolute limits. Finally, on April 9, 1959, NASA unveiled America’s first group of astronauts, who would forever be known as the “Mercury Seven.” They were Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Leroy Gordon Cooper, and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton of the U.S. Air Force; Alab B. Shepard, Malcolm Scott Carpenter, and Walter M. “Wally” Schirra of the U.S. Navy; and John H. Glenn of the U.S. Marine Corps. All were chosen for their unique combination of skill, intuition, and nerve that in test pilot circles became known simply as “The Right Stuff.”
But while most agreed the Mercury Seven were the absolute best that could have been chosen under the circumstances, many wondered whether others might also have the Right Stuff – including women. Among these were Air Force Brigadier General Donald Flickinger and Dr. William R. Lovelace, who had designed many of the medical tests used to select the astronauts. At the time medical knowledge of female physiology was limited in extreme scenarios, but it was known that on average women were lighter and more compact than men, consumed less food, oxygen, and water, and were better able to withstand long periods of tedium – ideal qualities for an astronaut. But Flickinger and Lovelace knew that without hard data NASA would never consider making women astronauts, so the two conceived of a research program wherein female pilots would be run through the same evaluation tests as the male astronauts. Phase I testing would take place at Lovelace’s research clinic in Albuquerque , and Phase II at Wright-Paterson Air Force Base in Ohio. All that was needed was the right test subject.
They didn’t have long to wait. On meeting Dr. Lovelace at an aviation conference, Jerrie Cobb immediately agreed to take part in the research program. A testing date was set for February, and Cobb began training to get herself in peak physical condition. Cobb arrived in Albuquerque on Valentine’s day 1960, and the next morning her ordeal began. And we do mean ordeal: over the course of a week Cobb was subjected to nearly every test in the medical arsenal, including endless blood and urine tests, x-rays, tilt-table blood pressure tests, whole-body radiation counts, eye exams, endurance tests on stationary bicycles, EKGs and EEGs, and nightly Barium enemas.
There was also the dreaded reflex test in which an electrified needle was inserted into the ulnar nerve, and a vertigo test wherein cold water was injected into the ear to induce dizziness. But for the extremely shy Cobb the most challenging test proved to be an enunciation exercise meant to gauge the clarity of a pilot’s voice over the radio. Yet despite these hardships Cobb passed the tests with flying colours, scoring in the top 2% of all astronaut candidates. Encouraged by these results, Dr. Lovelace asked Cobb to recommend other female pilots to follow her into the test program. Poring through the records of the FAA and the Ninety-Nines – the women’s aviation association – Cobb slowly pieced together a list of twenty-four candidates. And in August 1960, Dr. Lovelace announced the results of the preliminary tests at an aeromedical conference in Stockholm, thrusting Jerrie Cobb into the media spotlight.
Despite her shyness, Cobb used her newfound fame to advocate for the inclusion of women in the U.S. space program, arguing:
“The race for space will not be a short one – nor an easy one – but it is one in which we must all participate. Out us go forward, then – there IS space for women!
Her campaigning grew even more intense in the wake of Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagrin becoming the first man in space on April 12, 1961, with Cobb stating:
“Russia may have put the first man in orbit, but the United States can now put the first woman in space – and here’s one who’d like to be riding that Redstone [rocket] tomorrow!”
Meanwhile, female pilots from around the country began arriving at the Lovelace Clinic to begin their testing. Of the initial 24 women Cobb had invited, six had declined for various reasons. The project also gained an extra candidate not originally on Cobb’s list. Upon reading an article in LIFE magazine about Jerrie Cobb’s tests, 21-year-old Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk, a flight instructor from Taos, New Mexico, called the Lovelace Clinic and volunteered for the testing program. With nearly 3000 flight hours under her belt, she was immediately accepted. Funk proved to be among the most determined of the female astronaut candidates; on learning that the stationary bike endurance record was 10 minutes, Funk pedalled for 11 before collapsing from exhaustion. While she would later claim that she had beaten John Glenn – the previous record holder – this was not the case, as endurance was only one factor in determining the test subject’s overall performance. It was one of many misconceptions that would dog the test program throughout its history and beyond.
Of the 18 women tested, 12 passed Phase I. These were Myrtle Cagle, twins Janet and Marion Dietrich, Wally Funk, Sarah Gorelick, Jane Hart, Jean Hixson, Rhea Hurrle, Gene Stumbough, Irene Leverton, Jerri Sloan, and Bernice Steadman. While Jerrie Cobb had coined the name “First Lady Astronaut Trainees” or FLATs for the group, it failed to stick, and the women would eventually become known simply as “The Mercury 13.” But while the 13 had reason to be optimistic about the future of the program, its trajectory had already been irrevocably altered by the involvement of a formidable figure.
Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran was a legend in the world of aviation, having broken more flying records and won more air races than any woman before or since. During the Second World War she headed the Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots, or WASPs – an all-female group that ferried aircraft from factories to air bases – while on May 18, 1953, she became the first woman to break the sound barrier. In 1936 she had married wealthy industrialist Floyd Odlum, chair of such companies as RCA and General dynamics – a union which granted her considerable political power. Though her accomplishments did much to advance the cause of women in aviation, Cochran was singularly disinterested in the issues of other women, opening doors simply so she could be the first to walk through them. According to Glennis Yeager, wife of legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager:
“Jackie would get annoyed if any women’s groups invited her to talk. “What do I have in common with a bunch of damned housewives?” she’d say.”
On learning of the FLATs program in August 1960, Cochran immediately contacted Dr. Lovelace and offered to lend her support and over $18,000 ($157,000 today) of her husband’s money to the project. But not content merely to participate and consult, Cochran immediately began rewriting the project in her image. Eighteen tests subjects, she argued, were too few to draw any scientifically useful conclusions; the project should instead involve hundreds of women, not least because many would be expected to drop out due to marriage or pregnancy. Cochran also made abundantly clear her dislike for Jerrie Cobb and her status as de facto leader of the FLATs, and in a series of press conferences attempted to sideline Cobb and position herself as the official head of the project.
And there was more bad news. Despite the best efforts of General Flickinger, Wright-Paterson Air Force Base refused to host the second phase of testing, forcing Flickinger and Lovelace to make alternate arrangements. Instead, Cobb travelled to NASA’s Lewis Research Centre in Cleveland to try out the MASTIF, a giant gyroscope-like contraption used to train astronauts how to stabilize a tumbling spacecraft. She then went to the Veteran’s Hospital in Oklahoma City to brave the “Lilly Pond”, a sensory deprivation chamber in which she was made to float in complete silence and darkness in a tank of body-temperature salt water. So complete was the isolation that most subjects began to eventually hallucinate. Despite six hours being thought the maximum a person could endure, Cobb lasted an incredible 9 hours, 40 minutes. Wally Funk would later exceed this figure by over an hour. The last phase of testing took place in May 1962 at Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida, where Cobb endured violent aerobatics while wired to an EEG to monitor her brainwaves and trained on the “Dilbert Dunker”, a device for training pilots how to escape from a ditched aircraft.
But this was to be the last triumph of the FLATs program. On September 12, 1961, six days before they were to arrive in Pensacola, the other 12 women received letters from the Navy informing them that Phase III testing was cancelled. Shocked and confused by this sudden reversal, Jerrie Cobb called every government official she could get a hold of, but was only able to learn that NASA saw “no requirement” for women in the space program at that time. Not helping matters was Jacqueline Cochran, who, upon being told by Dr. Lovelace that she was too old to be considered for astronaut testing, began trying to dismantle the project entirely, stating in a letter to Jerrie Cobb that:
“Women for one reason or another have always come into each phase of aviation a little behind their brothers. They should, I believe accept this delay and not get into the hair of the public authorities about it. Their time will come and pushing too hard just now could possibly retard rather than speed that date. It is better to be sound than quick.”
Unconvinced, Cobb decided to take her case directly to the Government, enlisting the help of fellow FLAT Jane Hart, wife of Senator Philip Hart of Michigan. Using her Washington connections, Hart managed not only to arrange a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Science and Astronautics, but also a private meeting with vice President Lyndon Johnson, a fierce advocate for space exploration. But while Johnson appeared sympathetic to Cobb and Hart’s cause, he explained that many other minorities also wanted to become astronauts but that there were insufficient time and resources to accommodate such requests. After the women left his office, Johnson pulled out their petition and scrawled across it “Let’s stop this now!” Though they didn’t know it yet, the fate of the Mercury 13 had already been sealed.
The first day of hearings began on July 17, 1962 with Cobb and Hart delivering their testimony. The women summarized the results of the medical tests, argued that women were just as physiologically and psychologically fit as men, and emphasized that women had always been at the forefront of every era of human exploration. Cobb concluded her testimony by stating:
“We seek only a place in our nation’s space future without discrimination. We ask as citizens of this nation to be allowed to participate with seriousness and sincerity in the making of history now. We offer you 13 women pilot volunteers.”
The committee’s response was mixed. One senator, siding with the women, wondered aloud whether the testing had been cancelled “…because men thought the women were too successful.” Another, referring to Cobb’s complaint that NASA was training chimpanzees instead of women for spaceflight, snidely asked if she was jealous of the female apes. Things only got worse as the next witness, Jackie Cochran, was called to testify. Displaying a complete lack of self-awareness regarding her considerable political connections, Cochran stated:
“I do not believe there has been any intentional or actual discrimination against women in the astronaut program to date. As one who has had much experience in high speed precision flying …and also as one who would like exceedingly to go into space, I do not feel I have been the subject of discrimination.”
Cochran went on to reiterate her arguments about not interfering with the Space Program and the need for a more comprehensive female testing program before the day’s hearings came to an end.
The next day, the committee heard testimony from astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter. While both made a token effort to acknowledge that women might indeed make good astronauts, in his closing statement Glenn neatly summarized the prevailing attitude of the time:
“I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized, really. It is just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.”
And just like that, it was all over. Despite the fact that three days of testimony had been planned, after barely a day and a half the hearings were abruptly adjourned. The House Subcommittee’s final report confirmed all the Mercury 13’s worst fears, drawing decidedly dismissive and ambivalent conclusions:
“After hearing witnesses, both Government and Non-Government, including astronauts Glenn and Carpenter, the subcommittee concluded that NASA’s program of selection was basically sound and properly directed, that the highest possible standards should continue to be maintained, and that some time in the future consideration should be given to inaugurating a program of research to determine the advantages to be gained by utilizing women as astronauts.”
Following the hearings, the Mercury 13 all went their separate ways, most going on to have long and successful careers in aviation. Jerrie Cobb, the only one of the 13 to complete all three phases of testing, moved to South America and spent over 30 years flying supplies and missionaries to remote Amazonian villages before dying of natural causes on March 18, 2019.
In the end, the first woman in space was not an American but Soviet textile worker Valentina Tereskhova, who on July 16, 1963 orbited the earth 48 times aboard the Vostok 6 capsule. However, the mission was largely a propaganda exercise; as the capsule was fully automated, Tereshkova was not required to possess any piloting skills like the American astronauts or the Mercury 13. A women would not fly into space again until 1982, when cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya launched aboard Soyuz T-7. She was followed a year later by the first American female astronaut, Sally Ride.
Over the years, a number of myths have grown up around the Mercury 13, including that they were part of an official NASA program and were denied the chance to fly in space purely out of sexism. In fact, the FLATs program was an entirely private venture, unaffiliated with NASA. And even if the 13 had been men they still would not have passed NASA’s selection criteria, as none were military test pilots or had ever flown a jet. Of course, this does not entirely absolve the Government of sexism, as women were barred from military test flying schools and would not be allowed in until 1988. Nonetheless, the Mercury 13’s test results did much to dispel longstanding myths about women’s physiological suitability for space flight, and their tireless advocacy paved the way for all female astronauts to come. The Mercury 13 may not have made it into space, but they did prove that women really did have The Right Stuff.
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Ackmann, Martha, The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight, Random House, 2003
Burgess, Colin, Selecting the Mercury Seven: The Search for America’s First Astronauts, Springer-Praxis Books, 2011
Carpenter, M. Scott et al, We Seven, Simon and Schuster, 1962
Bartels, Meghan, Jerrie Cobb, Record-Breaking Pilot and Advocate for Female Spaceflight, Has Died, space.com, April 19, 2019, https://www.space.com/jerrie-cobb-died-mercury-13-women-in-space.html
Qualifications for Astronauts: Hearings Before the Special Subcommittee on the Selection of Astronauts of the Committee on Science and Astronauts, U.S. House of Representatives; Eighty-seventh Congress, Second Session, July 17 and 18, 1962, Volume 2, https://books.google.ca/books/about/Qualifications_for_Astronauts.html?id=xGIVAAAAIAAJ&redir_esc=y
Day, Dwayne, You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby! The Space Review, July 15, 2013, https://www.thespacereview.com/article/2331/1
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