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Women in Space: The Mercury Thirteen

September 12, 2011 by The Belated Nerd

In 1959, Air Force General Donald Flickinger and space medicine pioneer Dr. W. Randolph Lovelace II proposed that it would be more practical from an engineering standpoint to send women rather than men into space due to their lower body weights and oxygen requirements. Dismissed by the Air Force, NASA showed muted interest in the idea and encouraged Dr. Lovelace to create the Woman in Space Program which began medical and physiological testing of accomplished women aviators. The tests that these women underwent were identical to those used to test the original Mercury astronauts, with the addition of gynecological examinations. 13 of the 19 women tested passed the same strenuous physiological exams that only 18 of 32 men passed. Several of the 13 finalists pilots were further tested on a series of psychological exams that were similar to or, in some instances, more demanding than those given to male Mercury candidates.

Armed with these results, 12 female candidates were  invited by NASA to begin astronaut training on September 17, 1961. Five days before they were to report to Pensacola, Florida for training, these women each received a telegram stating “Regret to advise you that arrangements at Pensacola cancelled. Probably will not be possible to carry out this part of the program.” It would be another 22 years before an American woman, Sally Ride would go into outer space, although the Soviets would send two women cosmonauts into orbit before then (Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982).

The thirteen women who passed the same physiological exams as the Mercury 7 astronauts were Jerrie Cobb, Bernice Steadman, Janey Hart, Jerri Truhill, Rhea Woltman, Sarah Ratley, Jan Dietrich, Marion Dietrich , Myrtle Cagle, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Jessen, Jean Hixson, and Wally Funk. Jan Dietrich and Marion Dietrich were twins and may have provided valuable comparative medical data if they had both had the opportunity to fly in space.

Jerrie Cobb and Janey Hart (wife of a US Senator) would champion the group’s cause before a Congressional committee hearing in 1962. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, officials from NASA, including astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter testified that women lacked interest in pursuing astronaut training and that few women were qualified. Cobb and Hart pointed out that  most of the women astronaut candidates had more hours of flight time than the average of the Mercury 7 pilots and specifically more than John Glenn. Less uninformed was NASA’s claim that  the prevailing social order did not accept women in the role of astronaut.  On June 17, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova of the USSR became the first woman in space, removing the last motivation for pursuing the U.S. Woman in Space Program.

 


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