History tells us that in 1963 Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova
was the first Russian woman in space and that in 1983 Dr. Sally
Ride became the first American woman in orbit.
as is typical when it comes to the accomplishments of women, a chapter
is missing in the story of the "space race." That chapter is
"The Mercury 13". Before we note the military women who are currently
with NASA as astronauts, let's take a look at what happened in the early
NASA began training the Mercury astronauts, and before the Soviets made
Valentina Tereshkova the first woman to go into space, 13 American women
had qualified for astronaut duty. In late 1959 a project cloaked in secrecy
began to develop at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Twenty
five of the nation's top women pilots were selected to participate in it.
Jerrie Cobb was the first woman pilot selected to report to the Lovelace
Clinic for Phase One of the tests. When she reported for astronaut training
Jerrie Cobb had logged over 10,000 flight hours (John Glenn had only 5,000
and Scott Carpenter 2,900.)
She went through the exact rigorous testing as male astronaut candidates.
Cobb was studied, tested, prodded, tilted, spun, exhausted with excercise,
and put in sensory depravation for over ten hours.
Her test results were so extraordinary, she was sent to the Naval School
of Aviation at Pensacola for Phase II of the program, and the other 25
women began Phase I testing.
Twelve of these women, as well as Jerrie Cobb, came through with exceptional
test results and were selected - and sworn to secrecy - to become The
They were: Rhea Allison, Jane Hart, Mary Wallace Funk
(known as Wally), Jean Hixson, Myrtle 'K" Cagle, Irene
Leverton, Sara Ratley, Jan and Marion Dietrich (twin
sisters) , Gene Nora Jessen, 'B' Steadman and Gerry Sloan
As the women waited for the next phase of their training, suddenly,
without warning, and without explanation, in July 1961, NASA cancelled
all further testing of women. The Mercury 13 women were unable to get answers
from NASA - even though these women had all proved to be more than suitable
for space flight. In fact studies showed that women were less prone to
heart attacks and less vulnerable to loneliness, cold, heat, pain and noise.
The fact that women weighed less was in itself cost effective since the
cost to send anything in orbit was roughly $1,000 per pound. A Congressional
subcommittee met in July of 1962 to review the scenario of women being
denied space travel. NASA responded with a Catch 22 loophole - they used
the fact that the female trainees had never gone through the jet-aircraft
testing at Edwards Air Force base. The catch was that women were not yet
eligible for jet-pilot training programs - and they wouldn't be allowed
in until 1973.
It's doubtful that anyone around today knows the real reasons women
were denied space travel in the '60s - some will hide behind the "public
opinion theory", others will say that the women were too good, and
the usual bureaucratic bilge will be found in aging reports. What
we do know is that thirteen exceptional women pilots were denied the chance
to participate in the space program in 1961 !!
Ironically, thirty four years later, seven of the Mercury 13 witnessed
America's first woman pilot astronaut, Lt. Col. Eileen Collins launch
at Cape Kennedy on February 3, 1995. Lt. Col. Collins was the pilot on
And now John Glenn wants to return to space at age 76. Well wouldn't
it be nice if NASA would extend the same invitation to Jerrie Cobb, who
is still flying!!
Fortunately the NASA people and the NASA attitude that prevailed in
the '60s do not exist today with respect to women in space. Since Dr. Ride's
trip in 1983 several women have been involved in space travel and some
of them are military women.
At least eight military women are participating, or have participated,
in the space program, on loan to NASA from their respective services.