Losing Their Place in Space and in History
Congress cleared the way last month for the crew of Apollo 11 to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
By contrast, the most the Mercury 13 flight crew can hope for is that someday, if they’re very lucky, they might get to be an answer on “Jeopardy.”
The question? “What prospective group of astronauts became astro-nots midway through their testing?”
Jerri Sloan Truhill of the Mercury 13 group says she’d be happy if NASA would “stop denying the contribution we made and were prepared to make. Instead they treat us as interlopers, invading their space.”
The Mercury 13 comprised a bunch of amazing women whose timing was all wrong. Pilots handpicked in the early ‘60s to be potential space cowgirls, they aced a series of physical tests designed to determine their suitability as astronauts, in some cases tests more rigorous than those given to men. Despite extraordinary performance in all categories, they could not clear the political hurdle their gender presented.
Three years before that hearing, Randolph Lovelace II, chairman of NASA’s Special Advisory Committee on Life Sciences, had just selected John Glenn, Alan Shepard and the rest of the famed Mercury 7 astronauts and was curious about how female pilots would measure up in the tests the men had taken at his clinic in Albuquerque. The space race was in full swing and if America couldn’t beat the Russians in sending a man into space, thought Lovelace, then why not send women?
In all, 26 women pilots were tested. Thirteen women--the Mercury 13--passed: Jerrie Cobb, Myrtle “K” Cagle, twin sisters Jan and Marion Dietrich, Wally Funk, Jane Hart, Jean Hixson, Gene Nora Jessen, Irene Leverton, Sarah Gorelick Ratley, Bernice “B” Steadman, Truhill and Rhea Allison Woltman.
Some 50 tests measured the women’s physical strength, conditioning, endurance and adaptability. They endured nearly 100 X-rays, drank radioactive water, swallowed rubber hosing, had their ears injected with freezing water to trigger disorientation. At times the performance standards were higher for the Mercury 13 than for the men of the Mercury 7. Funk cites the sensory deprivation test she took as a case in point.
Clinicians confessed to her that the “dog dip” was longer and more isolating for the women than it was for the men. The test required that Funk float in an 8-foot tank of warm water--a tank located in a small, airtight room with no sounds, no smells, no stimulation of any kind. The objective was to measure how soon a subject might become dysfunctional and whether hallucinations set in. The men were tested for three hours; Funk floated for 10 hours and 35 minutes, never hallucinating and only “sneaking a couple of quick naps.” Women, the doctors surmised, could endure more deprivation than men.
Funk later passed a centrifuge test in which she surprised attending Marines by taking five Gs (five times the force of gravity) without blacking out, even though regulations did not permit her to borrow a G-suit. She was wearing a full-length girdle for support.
Results for the Mercury 13 were outstanding--better on some tests than the men’s. Donald Kilgore, who assisted Lovelace at the clinic, recalls that Funk and Cobb, in particular, were extraordinary candidates and “would have made excellent astronauts.” Ecstatic, Lovelace set up the next phase, flight training, at the Navy’s aviation medicine school at Pensacola, Fla.
But the Navy wanted NASA to sign off on the project. Tests were rescheduled several times. Mercury 13 member Truhill recalls how frustrating it was.
“I bought a ticket to Pensacola and had my bags packed,” she says. “I was a mother. It wasn’t easy to get things ready to go.”
On Sept. 12, 1961, five days before the women were to report to Pensacola, the tests were canceled. Cobb hopped a plane to Washington, D.C., and banged on doors until she found the chief of naval operations. “He told me,” Cobb remembers, “that the tests were canceled because NASA did not want the tests run on women.”
Spokeswoman Peggy Wilhide said NASA was following a policy set by President Eisenhower that astronauts must come from the military. Truhill is convinced that NASA’s sexism killed the program.
Cobb and Jane Hart carried on the fight, lobbying Vice President Lyndon Johnson. LBJ was privately sympathetic but refused to endorse their cause.
Thanks in part to Hart’s husband, Sen. Philip Hart of Michigan, a congressional hearing on astronaut qualifications was set for July 1962. Cobb and Hart would represent the Mercury 13.
Cobb’s appeal began: “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.”
New York Rep. Victor Anfuso, committee chairman, followed with a sexist joke. “Miss Cobb, that was an excellent statement. I think that we can safely say at this time that the whole purpose of space exploration is to someday colonize these other planets, and I don’t see how we can do that without women.” The audience broke into laughter.
On day 2 of the hearings, Glenn echoed the prevailing theme that women had to be better rather than equal to men. “If we could find any women that demonstrated they have better qualifications than men,” he said, “we would welcome them with open arms.” Again the audience roared.
Day 3 of the hearings was canceled. The congressmen had heard enough and ruled that future astronauts would come from the ranks of military jet test pilots. Since women were not allowed to train as test pilots until a decade later, the policy slammed the door shut on the Mercury 13.
Cobb began piloting humanitarian medical flights to the Amazon rain forest. Hart became a founding board member of the National Organization for Women. Truhill returned to her aviation business in Texas. Funk became one of the first women investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration. And Lovelace died in a plane crash.
Cobb and Funk have never given up their hopes of going into space. Cobb petitions NASA year after year. Most recently she used Glenn’s 1998 return to space to renew her bid. Funk has given up on NASA.
After four applications to the Johnson Space Center astronaut program and four “not interested” replies, Funk is pursuing other paths. She has signed on for one of the upcoming commercial space launches and is scheduled to blast off in 2003. The 61-year-old Funk has been training in Russia’s old cosmonaut facility. Strapped for cash, the Russians have opened the training site to paying customers. “I’ll take it any way I can,” she says, fully aware that her 2003 launch, which has been rescheduled multiple times, could be scrubbed.
Eileen Collins, who in July 1999 became the first woman to command a space shuttle mission, is still astounded by the history of the Mercury 13. “I cannot fathom anyone saying that we don’t want women,” she states. She made sure that the Mercury 13 were on the guest list for her launch. Seven of the 13 gathered at Cape Canaveral, Fla., to see Collins off, and the commander went out of her way to acknowledge them with applause and a salute. Few other people knew who they were.
* Martha Ackmann is a writer and women’s studies professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
* This story originally appeared on Salon.com.