Forget The Astronaut Wives Club, Let's Talk about the Amazing Mercury 13
On June 18, ABC will air the television show The Astronaut Wives Club, adapted from Lily Koppel’s bestselling non-fiction book. The show depicts the lives, mundane and otherwise, of the women left behind – the wives of astronauts. The show intrigues me because it’s a period piece, and looks like it will fill the Mad Men void, but there’s one question I have about this work. [pullquote]
As interesting as The Astronaut Wives Club will probably be, why aren’t we talking about female astronauts themselves. Why don’t we talk about the Mercury 13 women, instead of the women married to the Mercury 7 men? [/pullquote] When I was a regular book blogger and bookseller, I read a fantastic book entitled Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone, who has a history of writing books about brave women of history. Stone’s book was the first time I’d ever heard of the Mercury 13 women.
THE ALMOST ASTRONAUTS
The Mercury 13 were a group of 13 women who underwent the rigorous training of the NASA testing program. It was 1959, and the chairman of NASA’s Life Sciences Committee, Randolph Lovelace, believed that women were just as capable as men as astronauts, and could even save NASA money, because they were smaller and lighter weights. Project WISE (Women in Space Earliest) was formed by Lovelace and the Air Force’s General Donald Flickinger. Their first candidate was Jerrie Cobb, an accomplished pilot with more than 7,000 hours of flight time. She was 28, and jumped at the opportunity. She also helped the two gentleman heads of WISE find other women, but then the Air Force decided they weren’t interested in women testing to be astronauts.
Lovelace and Cobb didn’t care. They pressed on, and decided to present their results to NASA. All of the tests Cobb underwent were the same as those given to her male counterparts. She passed all of them with flying colors, and broke the record of longest time spent in an isolation tank: nine hours, 40 minutes. She started the second round of tests at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Pensacola, Florida.
Cobb became a notable figure when a piece ran about her in Life magazine. Other women began volunteering, and started doing the first round of tests. However, they were told they wouldn’t go any further. Instead Cobb and the other 12 women with her were to stop their dreams, stop their notions of going into space like men, because there would be no more program. The Navy lab also wasn’t going to allow them to do any more tests, because NASDA didn’t support it.
These ladies didn’t take too well to that, as you can imagine. Cobb flew to Washington D.C., and tried to get the decision reversed. Letters to then-President Kennedy were sent, and she, along with Janey Hart, testified before Congress. Nothing they said mattered. It was the end of the road for the Mercury 13, who would get no time in space. For 40 years, Johnson’s note bearing the words “Let’s stop this now” was buried in a bunch of files. In 1963, the Soviet space program sent the first woman in space, but in the United States, a woman wasn’t selected as an astronaut candidate until 1978, which resulted in Sally Ride on ST-7 in 1983. My review for Almost Astronauts ended with the following, and I still believe it today:
ALMOST ASTRONAUTS is an important book, not only for the rich and relatively unknown history it contains, but as a reflection of how far we’ve come in women’s rights. After finishing ALMOST ASTRONAUTS, you’ll want a movie, a statue, just SOMETHING to commemorate the indelible mark these women left, and most of all, you’ll want to share it with a girl (or boy) who harbors big dreams of their own.
Why not now? I love shows set in the 1960’s as much as the next person, but I think we should talk about the fact we had women who broke records and proved they were as capable as the male astronauts. Wouldn’t that be just as compelling a story?
You can read more about the Mercury 13 at the author’s site.
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