Jerrie Cobb, Jane Hart, the twins Jan and Marion Dietrich, B Steadman, Jerri Sloan, Wally Funk, Sarah Gorelick, Irene Leverton, Myrtle “K” Cagle, Gene Nora Stumbough, Rhea Hurrle, and Jean Hixson. These names are not as familiar as John Glenn, if they’re recognizable at all. These are the women who went through the same physical and psychological testing as NASA’s Mercury 7 astronauts.
In 1947 William Randolph Lovelace II, the inventor of several oxygen masks made specifically for pilots, founded the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and there rigorously tested 31 astronaut candidates, who were whittled down to the final Mercury 7 astronauts. In a privately funded side project, Dr. Lovelace invited over 20 female pilots to his Albuquerque clinic to see how well they performed the same tests. It turns out, the women not only matched the men but surpassed them! Thirteen of these women went on to be known informally as the Mercury 13, although “Mercury 13” is somewhat of a misnomer, according to Margaret Weitekamp, because these women were never part of the NASA Mercury Project. Lovelace himself called it the “Woman in Space Program.” They were also called the “First Lady Astronaut Trainees” by Jerrie Cobb.
These women were looking for equality in the field of astronautics, but found only closed doors from the official bureaucracy. In addition to testifying before the House Special Subcommittee on the Selection of Astronauts, Committee on Science and Astronautics on July 17th and 18th of 1962, Jerrie Cobb and Jane Hart also met with then Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to discuss the prospects of women astronauts. According to Ackmann, he told them flatly that if NASA let women into the space program, they’d need to allow all minorities into the program. With this being the early 1960’s, that would have been a tough pill for people to swallow. Not only were these women up against sexism, but they were facing the obstacles of racism as well.
Due to the shortsighted views of the time in the U.S., the U.S.S.R. was able to make another first in the space race by putting Valentina Tereshkova into space in 1963. In fact, it wasn’t until twenty years later, in 1983, that NASA put a woman into space–Sally Ride. It was even further down the pike when, in 1999, Eileen Collins became the first woman pilot and shuttle commander.
There is no doubt that the pioneering efforts made by the First Lady Astronaut Trainees paved the way for women in the space program. These were fully capable women who were well ahead of their time. They were unfairly treated, but have since gained recognition for their extraordinary deeds. A motion to formally honor these women was introduced into the Congressional Record on June 6, 2007. In addition, there have been numerous articles, books, and even a newly released documentary commemorating their efforts.
For more information, check out these great resources:
- Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program
- Almost Astronauts: The True Story of the “Mercury 13” Women
- Women in Space
- Women Space Pioneers
- Promised the Moon: The Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race
- The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of the Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight