Mercury 13: The Women Who Almost Became Astronauts

Jul 20, 2021 0 comments

If everything goes as planned, a few hours from now, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos would blast off into space aboard the suborbital space vehicle New Shepard developed by the billionaire’s own spaceflight company Blue Origin. Accompanying Bezos will be aviator Wally Funk, who at the age of 82 years, would be the oldest person to ever fly to space. Funk had been waiting for this opportunity for six decades.

Wally Funk was one of thirteen women who took part in a privately funded effort to test whether women could survive the rigors of spaceflight. This small group, originally called the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs) and later the ‘Mercury 13’ as an allusion to the ‘Mercury 7’ group of male astronauts, underwent some of the same medical tests as their male counterparts and could have qualified for the space mission had NASA allowed.

Mercury 13

Members of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs, also known as the "Mercury 13") stand outside Launch Pad near the Space Shuttle Discovery in this photograph from 1995. From left to right: Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. Photo: NASA

When NASA first planned to put people in space, they believed that the best candidates would be pilots, submarine crews or members of expeditions to the Antarctic or Arctic areas. They also thought people with more extreme sports backgrounds, such as parachuting, climbing, deep sea diving, etc. would excel in the program.

NASA soon realized that many people would likely apply, and that processing all the applications would be expensive and time consuming. President Dwight Eisenhower believed that military test pilots would make the best astronauts as they had already passed rigorous testing and training within the government. As a result, the selection requirements were changed. It was decided that all astronauts must be graduates of military jet test pilot schools and have engineering degrees. The criteria were later relaxed, but the choice of military test pilots as the first astronauts had set the trend. The selection requirements automatically disqualified women from applying, as women were barred from military flight training.

Mercury 13

Jerrie Cobb poses next to a Mercury spaceship capsule. Photo: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

William Randolph Lovelace, an aerospace physician and the head of NASA's committee on life science, was the person in charge of developing the physical and mental tests for male astronauts, but at the same time he also became curious to know how women would fare on the same tests. With the help of world-renowned aviator Jacqueline Cochran, who financed the project, Lovelace was able to convince some two dozen women to come and take part in the tests.

All of the women who took part in the training exercised were skilled airplane pilots with commercial ratings. Most of them were recruited through the Ninety-Nines, a women pilot's organization. Others heard about the testing through friends or newspaper articles and volunteered. Accomplished pilot Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb was the first test candidate. The oldest candidate, Jane Hart, was a forty-one year old mother of eight, while the youngest, Wally Funk, was a twenty-three year old flight instructor.

Mercury 13

An undated photograph of aviator Wally Funk. Photo: Blue Origin

Because Lovelace was not sure what kind of conditions astronauts might encounter in space, he devised a range of invasive tests ranging from the typical X-rays and electrocardiograms to swallowing a rubber tube to test the level of their stomach acids, and shooting freezing water into ear canals to induce vertigo. The women braved them all, and some even performed better than their male counterparts.

The second phase of testing included psychological screenings, personality tests, additional neurological exams, isolation tests and more. The final phase consisted of flight simulations, which could only be conducted using military equipment and jet aircraft. Because this was not an official NASA program, only Jerrie Cobb was able to complete the third phase before the program was abruptly cancelled. Without an official NASA request to run the tests, the United States Navy would not allow the use of its facilities for such an unofficial project. By then the number of qualifying women were down to thirteen. Cobb, who was the only woman to pass all three phases of training exercises, ranked in the top 2% of all astronaut candidates of both genders.

Mercury 13

Photo: Netflix

Because of the secrecy of the testing and lack of testing facilities (the physical and mental tests were conducted at Lovelace’s personal clinic), not all all of the women candidates knew each other throughout their years of preparation. Tests were conducted alone or in pairs. It was not until 1994 that ten of the Mercury 13 were introduced to each other for the first time.

When the program was cancelled, Jerrie Cobb flew to Washington, D.C. to try to have the testing program resumed. She even wrote to President John Kennedy and visited Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Finally, Cobb was granted a public hearings before a special Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics. Cobb and another FLAT Jane Hart testified about the benefits of Lovelace’s private project, but surprisingly, it was Jackie Cochran who vehemently opposed women astronauts, saying it could hurt the NASA program as women tended to drop out significantly due to trivial reasons like “marriage, childbirth, and other causes.” NASA representatives pointed out that women cannot be astronauts because they did not qualify the requirements of being graduates of military jet test piloting programs.

Mercury 13

Jerrie Cobb is seen testing in 1960 in NASA's Multiple Axis Space Test Inertia Facility. Photo: NASA

Lovelace's privately funded women's testing project received renewed media attention when Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space on June 16, 1963. The LIFE magazine criticized NASA and American decision makers, and the New York Times quoted Jerrie Cobb remarking that it was “a shame that since we are eventually going to put a woman into space, we didn't go ahead and do it first.”

It wasn't until two decades later in 1983 that NASA flew its first female astronaut Sally Ride, and another twelve years later, in 1995, that a woman, Eileen Collins, was allowed the controls of the space shuttle for the first time.

# Lovelace’s Woman in Space Program, NASA
# Swapna Krishna, The Mercury 13: The women who could have been NASA's first female astronauts,
# Wikipedia


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