Science & Technology

The Mercury 13 Should Have Been the First Women in Space

Picture this. You're an accomplished pilot with multiple altitude records to your name. One day, you get the call that you never thought would come — NASA wants to recruit you for one of their first voyages into outer space. And with your credentials, they want you to train a crew as well. Spoiler alert: since it's the late '50s, and you're a female pilot, this dream won't happen the way you think it will.

Jerrie Cobb, testing the Gimbal Rig in the Altitude Wind Tunnel in April 1960. The Gimbal Rig, formally called MASTIF or Multiple Axis Space Test Inertia Facility, was used to train astronauts to control the spin of a tumbling spacecraft.

The Right Stuff, the Wrong Gender

That pilot we were talking about? Her name is Jerrie Cobb, and she's lived an incredible life even without ever going to space. The daughter of distinguished pilot Lt. Col. William Cobb, she was flying before most kids even learn how to drive. Her first flight was in 1943, and four years later, at 16, she was helping to advertise traveling circuses by dropping leaflets from her little Piper J-3 Cub. Obviously, the kind of kid who has that as an after-school job is destined for great things. As an adult, Cobb was barred from joining the military — this would become a recurring theme in her life — but at age 22, she set international flight records for speed, distance, and absolute altitude.

By 1958, she was a household name, at least in houses that cared a lot about airplanes. She had become one of the only female executives in the aeronautical field, and LIFE magazine had included her as one of only nine women on their roundup of the "100 most important young people in the United States."

So maybe it's not surprising that she was at the top of Dr. Randy Lovelace's short list of potential female astronauts. Lovelace was the physician who designed the physiological tests for the Mercury Seven, the men who became the United States' first astronauts — including famous names like John Glenn and Alan Shepard.

Cobb turned out to be the first of many candidates who Lovelace tested, although he did so without the support of either the Air Force or NASA. After Cobb lasted more than nine hours in a sensory deprivation tank, much longer than any of the male astronaut trainees, Lovelace's program got its funding — from another female aviator named Jacqueline Cochran, who also happened to be a businesswoman with funds.

All told, Lovelace found a total of 20 qualified female recruits, a number that was eventually whittled down to 13. Along with Cobb, their names were Wally Funk, Irene Leverton, Myrtle "K" Cagle, Jane B. Hart, Gene Nora Stumbough, Jerri Sloan, Rhea Hurrle, Sarah Gorelick, Bernice "B" Trimble Steadman, twin sisters Jan and Marion Dietrich, and Jean Hixson. For a minute, it looked like they might actually make it into space, until NASA decided not to support the next step of their training at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine. The Navy pulled its support shortly after. In 1962, with the bulk of their training behind them, the 13 women had to argue their case before Congress.

A Lost Cause

The Mercury 13 weren't exactly unknown, although they were officially known as the FLATs (First Lady Astronaut Trainees). But when you look at coverage of their fight to blast off, you'll generally find plenty of info about their looks, their fashion choices, and their husbands, instead of their credentials. In fact, when Jane Hart took the stand, she wasn't even billed under her own name — she was called "Mrs. Philip Hart."

Their cause was just and their logic was sound, but just consider that one NASA official was quoted as saying women in space made him sick to his stomach. It's clear that they were never going to win the fight. Even John Glenn wouldn't support them, testifying that only men who had served in the military could be capable of spaceflight. The Mercury 13 program was allowed to wither away — and the next year, the USSR became the first country to put a woman in orbit.

About 20 years after the Soviets broke the planetary glass ceiling, the United States finally sent its first female astronaut, Sally Ride, into space. It was another 12 years before US astronaut Col. Eileen Collins became the country's first female pilot in space. The good news is that we've come a long way. But the bad news is that it's taken a long time. Now, with a new documentary on the Mercury 13 available on Netflix (and another from Amazon coming close behind), it might be time to reflect on the many ways that prejudice held us back in the past — and how it's holding us back right now.

There's a lot to learn about these incredible women, even if you've already binged the documentary. Read all about them in Martha Ackerman's "The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight" (free with your trial membership to Audible). We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas April 19, 2018

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