Women in Space: The Mercury 13

If you're interested in the history of space exploration, you've heard of the Mercury 7. But have your heard of their (unofficial) female counterparts, the Mercury 13? Here's their story.


On April 19, 1959, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) introduced the seven astronauts who would take part in the Mercury Program. The goal: to put an American into orbit. It was America's first manned space program, and competition for the seven slots had been fierce. An original list of 508 military test pilots were winnowed down to 32 candidates, who were then subjected to a battery of intense medical, psychological, and spacecraft-simulator tests. Eighteen made the final cut, and from these, the "Mercury 7" -Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra, Gordon Cooper, and Donald "Deke" Slayton- were chosen.


One of the people who helped design the medical tests was Dr. W. Randolph Lovelace II, a specialist in aviation medicine and chairman of NASA's Life Sciences Committee. Lovelace wondered how well women might do if they were subjected to the same tests. He took an even greater interest in the idea in the summer of 1959, when he made a trip to the USSR to study the Soviet space program. There he learned that the Russians were already looking into sending a woman into space. There were even rumors that the very first Soviet cosmonaut might be a woman.

Apparently, the Soviets felt that a woman had a great deal to offer the space program and that in some ways, they were better suited for space travel than men were. A typical female needed less oxygen, ate less food, and weighed less than a typical male. That would make for a smaller payload; no minor consideration at the dawn of the Space Age, when rockets were smaller and less powerful. Every pound that could be shaved from the total weight was critical. But were women physically and mentally tough enough for space flight? The Russians thought so, and so did Dr. Lovelace. But he wanted to test them to find out for sure.


Mercury 7 astronauts

The Mercury 7 astronauts had undergone three phases of testing to qualify for the space program. Phase one -medical testing- was conducted at Lovelace's clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Testing women there wouldn't be a problem, since it was a civilian facility, and he could run it as he pleased. But the second and third phases -psychological and spacecraft-simulation testing- were a different matter. For the Mercury 7, the tests had been run at Wright Air Development Center in Ohio. The female test subject had no official ties to NASA, so the Air Force simply wasn't interested in testing them.

Lovelace decided to conduct phase one testing at his clinic anyway. Then, if those results were promising, he thought he might be able to convince the Air Force or some other branch of the military to make its facilities available for further tests.


Lovelace established several basic criteria for his subjects: they had to be 35 years of age or younger (he later raised the limit to 40), had to be in good health, and had to have a four-year college degree. They also had to have a commercial pilot's license with at least 1,000 hours of flying experience. That summer he met a 28-year-old pilot named Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb at an aviation conference in Florida. Cobb, who had more than 10,000 hours of flying experience and three world aviation records to her name, had just been named Pilot of the Year by the National Pilots Association. Lovelace invited her to be the first woman he tested.

Nothing in Cobb's experience could have prepared her for the grueling week she spent at Lovelace's clinic in February 1960. In one test, she had to swallow three feet of rubber hose so that the doctor could study her gastric juices. In another, she had ice water squirted into her ears to knock her off balance and test her equilibrium. She also had colon exams, three barium enemas a day, and countless X-rays. Over a six-day period, she submitted to more than 80 different medical tests.


Cobb tested so well against the Mercury 7 astronauts that Lovelace worried that if he went to NASA with her results alone, they'd dismiss her as a fluke. So he asked Cobb to come up with a list of 24 other female pilots he could test, to be sure that her results weren't an anomaly. Eighteen of the women agreed to come to Albuquerque, and of these, 12 tested well enough to qualify for the next phase …if there was to be a next phase.

The other 12 women:
* Bernice "B" Steadman, 35, commercial pilot and owner of a flight school in Flint, Michigan.
* Marion Dietrich, 34, pilot and reporter for the Oakland Tribune in California.
* Dietrich's identical twin sister, Jan, 34, flight instructor and commercial pilot.
* Mary Wallace "Wally" Funk, 21, flying instructor at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
* Jean Hixson, 37, World War II engineering test pilot and flight instructor who'd become a school teacher in Akron, Ohio (pictured right).
* Myrtle Cagle, 36, flight instructor in Macon, Georgia.  
* Sarah Gorelick, 27, electrical engineer with AT&T in Kansas City, Kansas.
* Rhea Hurrle, 30, executive pilot for an aircraft company in Houston, Texas.
* Irene Leverton, 34, charter pilot and flight instructor in Santa Monica, California.
* Gene Nora Strumbough, 24, flight instructor at the University of Oklahoma.
* Geraldine "Gerrie" Sloan, 30, owner of an aviation business in Dallas, Texas.
* Jane "Janey" Hart, 40, airplane and helicopter pilot, wife of U.S. Senator Philip Hart, and mother of eight.


Because Lovelace had to fit these tests into the clinic's regular schedule,most of the women were invited to Albuquerque individually as openings became available. And because he insisted on secrecy -he wanted to keep the testing under wraps until he had the results- few of the female pilots even knew who the other members of the group were. In some case the women did not meet each other until years later -they were a group in name only. The name? Originally called Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATS), they later became known as the "Mercury 13."

Now that Lovelace had a pool of women who had tested well against the results of the men, he was ready to move onto phase two (psychological tests) and phase three (spacecraft simulators). But where would he conduct these tests?

Cobb found a psychiatry professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine who was willing to conduct the phase-two testing on all 13 women. And the U.S. School of Naval Medicine agreed to test Cobb in its simulators in Pensacola, Florida. If she tested well, the other 12 FLATs would be invited, too.


Cobb went through phase two testing in Oklahoma. Again, she passed. Then she went to Pensacola for phase three testing …and scored as well as any experienced Navy pilot. That was all the Navy needed -it began making plans to test the rest of the FLAT team. Before it did, however, it contacted NASA to confirm that the space agency actually wanted the women tested.

It didn't. "NASA," the space agency explained, "does not at this time have a requirement for such a program." With that, the Navy backed out. Just six days before testing was scheduled to begin, each of the Mercury 13 received a telegram from Dr. Lovelace. "Regret to advice the arrangements at Pensacola cancelled," it read. "Probably will not be possible to carry out this part of the program."

Marion and Jan Dietrich


By communicating its lack of interest in women astronauts, NASA effectively scuttled the FLAT program in 1962, at least for the time being. The official explanation was that the space agency would only consider military test pilots with extensive experience flying jet aircraft. And since women were excluded from flying jets in the military (not to mention the airlines), they couldn't qualify. Experience, not gender, was the determining factor, NASA claimed.

In truth, however, NASA's ban on women was motivated by a fear that the space program would be irreparably harmed if a woman died in space. "Had we lost a woman back then because we decided to fly a woman rather than a man, we would have been castrated," Mercury Program flight director Chris Kraft admitted years later.


All of the Mercury 13 women had made tremendous sacrifices to get this far -Sarah Gorelick and Gene Nora Stumbough had quit their jobs, and Jerrie Sloan's husband divorced her when she refused to drop out of the program. After all the trouble they'd been through, they didn't want to take no for an answer.

Jerrie Cobb and Janey Hart

Janey Hart, married to Senator Philip Hart of Michigan, decided that she could no longer keep her promise to Dr. Lovelace to remain silent. She started working her connections in Washington, D.C. writing letters to each member of the congressional space committees. She released a copy of the letter to the press and, with Jerrie Cobb, began giving interviews to reporters. Hart also managed to arrange a meeting with Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who was head of the President's Space Council and the White House's liaison with NASA. Johnson listened politely to Hart and Cobb, and then brushed them off by telling them that while he wanted to help, it was NASA's responsibility to decide who became an astronaut, not his. With that, he ended the meeting and had the two women shown out of his office. After they left, Johnson scrawled a note to his staff: "Let's stop this now!"


The meeting with LBJ had gone nowhere, but Hart and Cobb kept pushing. Result: In July 1962, the House of Representatives Committee on Science and Astronautics announced that it would hold three days of subcommittee hearings to investigate whether NASA discriminated against women. A total of six witnesses would be called -three representing the Mercury 13 and three representing NASA.

But that wasn't quite how it worked out. Hart and Cobb were selected to be two of the witnesses for the Mercury 13. The third witness was an aviator named Jacqueline "Jackie" Cochran.


You've probably never heard of Jackie Cochran, but in the 1960s, she was the most famous female pilot in the world. She'd broken more speed, distance, and altitude records than any female pilot alive, and was the first woman to break the sound barrier. Yet she opposed the continuing testing of the Mercury 13.

Cochran had initially supported the FLAT program and even financed the first phase of testing at the Lovelace clinic. Since then, however she had turned against the program. Why? One theory: she could never be an astronaut herself. Cochran was in her mid-50s and had tested poorly during her physical at the Lovelace clinic. That ruled her out as a potential candidate, and that's when she began to oppose the Mercury 13. Perhaps the most famous female aviator since Amelia Earhart did not want to be overshadowed by the first woman in space.


On the first day of the hearings, Cobb and Hart testified in favor of testing the women. Then it was Cochran's turn. And just as Cobb and Hart feared, Cochran told the committee that there was "no shortage of well-trained and long-experienced male pilots to serve as astronauts," and that adding women to the mix would "slow down our [space] program and waste a great deal of money."

On the second day of testimony, the committee questioned George Low, NASA's director of spacecraft and flight missions, and then questioned astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter. None of them were receptive to the idea of allowing women into their ranks. Like Cochran, Glenn argued that testing women for he space program was a waste of money, since NASA had already spent millions of dollars training men for the job and had all the astronauts it needed. "The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them," Glenn said. "The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order."


The hearings were scheduled to last for three days, but shortly before noon on the second day, Congressman Victor Anfuso of New York, who chaired the hearings, banged his gavel and called the proceedings to a close. He had collected enough information to write his report, he explained, so no further testimony was necessary.

"NASA's program of selection is basically sound," the final report stated, acknowledging that at "some time in the future" NASA should revisit the possibility of conducting "research to determine the advantages to be gained by utilizing women as astronauts."

The Mercury 13 program was over, this time for good.

WE'RE (NOT) #1

Valentina Tereshkova

Less than a year later, on June 16, 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, a mill worker and parachute hobbyist, became the first woman in space. How much longer would it take an American woman to make the same trip? Twenty years.

In 1983 physicist Sally Ride became the first when she made a six-day flight on the space shuttle Challenger. But Ride was a flight engineer, and did not pilot the shuttle. The first woman to command a space shuttle mission was Lieutenant Colonel Eileen Collins, who piloted the Columbia into orbit in 1999 -nearly 40 years after the first Mercury space mission.

Colonel Eileen Collins, pilot STS-63 and STS-84, commander STS-93 and STS-114


Where are the Mercury 13 now? Some have passed away, others are still flying, and two of them -Jerrie Cobb and Wally Funk- still hope to fly in space.

When 77-year-old John Glenn returned to space aboard the space shuttle in October 1998 as part of a scientific study on the effects of aging, Cobb's supporters launched a campaign to get her included on a future mission. At the same time, NASA officials said they still have no plans to send Cobb into space, and the grounding of the entire space shuttle program following the Columbia disaster in 2003 makes her chances even more remote.

Wally Funk isn't waiting for NASA to come around. Over the years, she has completed her astronaut testing at her own expense, even traveling to Russia in 2000 to train with Russian cosmonauts. She is currently working as a test pilot for Interorbital Systems, a California-based company that plans to launch privately-owned, privately-funded spacecraft. "I'm still pedaling! I never lost the faith," she told the Los Angeles Times in January 2004. "Whether we make it with Interorbital or not, I'm going to make it. I don't know how, but I know it's going to happen."

Keep up with Wally Funk at her website.
Keep up with Jerrie Cobb at the Jerrie Cobb Foundation.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Slightly Irregular Bathroom Reader, a fantastic book by the Bathroom Readers' Institute. The 17th book in this the Bathroom Reader series is filled to the brim with facts, fun, and fascination, including articles about the Origin of Kung Fu, How to Kill a Zombie, Women in Space and more!

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