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In the late 1950s, NASA recruited military test pilots to become the very first American Astronauts.
They underwent an extensive battery of tests to find the very best astronauts for the Mercury program.
These men became the Mercury 7.
However, at the same time, another round of tests was being conducted on another group of pilots. These pilots were given the exact same physical and mental tests as the astronauts. The only difference was, they were women.
Learn more about the Mercury 13 on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
This episode is sponsored by Audible.com.
My audiobook recommendation today is The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight by Martha Ackmann
In 1961, just as NASA launched its first man into space, a group of women underwent secret testing in the hopes of becoming America’s first female astronauts. They passed the same battery of tests as did the Mercury 7 astronauts, but they were summarily dismissed by the boys’ club at NASA and on Capitol Hill.
You can get a free one-month trial to Audible and 2 free audiobooks by going to audibletrial.com/EverythingEverywhere or clicking on the link in the show notes.
When the space race began, the initial goal by both the Soviets and the Americas was to put a human into orbit.
No one had a clue what conditions would be like in space. In fact, when the idea was first hatched, there was doubt as to if it was even possible for humans to exist in space.
What would happen without gravity? Would radiation levels in space be lethal?
Because they didn’t know what conditions they would face, they figured the best people to recruit as astronauts would be people used to similar conditions: military test pilots.
The initial pool of candidates was 508. 110 of them were interviewed. 32 of those were then brought in for physical and psychological testing. From this group, the final 7 were selected.
All of the candidates from the very start were men. There were no female military test pilots, so none were eligible for the program.
The idea of admitting women into the Mercury program was something that was never officially considered.
However, one person in the program was curious what would happen if women were subjected to the exact same tests that the male astronauts were.
William Randolph Lovelace II was a flight surgeon who helped develop the tests for NASA and the Mercury Program. He wanted to know how accomplished female pilots would perform. With the support of Air Force Brig. General Don Flickinger, the top flight surgeon in the Air Force, he set out to find an answer.
He recruited Geraldine “Jerrie” Cobb, one of the most accomplished female pilots in the world. Jerrie had her pilot’s license at the age of 17, was a commercial pilot at 18, and eventually earned almost every flight certification available. She would often fly military bombers and fighters from factories to air forces around the world.
Lovelace subjected Cobb to the same tests that all of the Mercury Astronauts were given….and she passed. She didn’t just pass, she was ranked in the top 2% of all astronaut candidates.
Cobb and Lovelace worked together to find more women to take the same tests. The entire project was privately funded and it did not have any official approval or oversight by NASA.
As with the Mercury Program, Cobb and Lovelace focused their search on pilots. They limited their search to women with at least 1,000 hours of flight time. Word of the program spread via word of mouth and women’s flying clubs.
There were eventually 19 women who were brought in for testing, and of them, 13 passed the same physical tests which were given to the male Mercury Astronauts. They were eventually dubbed the Mercury 13.
Unlike the Mercury program, most of the women never met each other. They were all tested separately, and unlike the men, they weren’t in a competition to make a cut.
While the program wasn’t a secret, it also wasn’t publicly promoted. During the testing, there wasn’t a single article written about the program or the women in it.
In 1962, there was potentially good news. The House Committee on Science and Astronautics had a public hearing on the qualification of Astronauts. Jerri Cobb and another woman in the program, Janey Hart, testified to the committee.
While their testimony was well-received, unfortunately, it was undermined by many others who were testifying.
John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth said, “I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized, really. It is just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.“.
One of the people called to testify was Jacqueline Cochran, who was an accomplished female pilot and the head of the WASP female pilot program in WWII. She and her husband also provided funding for Dr. Lovelace’s testing program.
Despite her funding and support of the program, her testimony ultimately torpedoed it. She said that many women who entered the program would quit and that it was more important that the space program move as quickly as possible to beat the Soviets, so having women in the program wasn’t as important.
Many people feel that she was upset that she couldn’t be in the program due to age requirements, she was 55, and that she didn’t want to hand the reins of being known as America’s top female pilot, let alone the first woman in space, to someone else.
In 1963, there was another opportunity when the Soviet Union launched the first woman into space. On June 22, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space.
Despite the propaganda victory by the Soviets, the Americans didn’t budge and still refused to allow a woman to enter the astronaut program. One of the political barbs toss at the American space program by Tereshkova was, “The (American leaders) shout at every turn about their democracy and at the same time they announce they will not let a woman into space. This is open inequality.”
When a final attempt was made to get women into the astronaut program, the idea was quashed by President Lyndon Johnson who sent a memo to NASA administrator James Webb which said, “Let’s stop this now!“
Despite Jerri Cobb proving that women could pass the physical requirements, and despite Valentina Tereshkova proving that women could fly in space, the United States didn’t even allow women to apply to become astronauts until 1978.
Six women qualified in 1978 to the US astronaut corps: Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Anna Lee Fisher, Kathryn Sullivan, and Margaret Rhea Seddon. All of them flew in space with Sally Ride being the first American woman in space.
The current American record holder for having spent the most time in space is Peggy Whitson, who has spent 665 days in orbit.
Jerri Cobb had a 30-year career flying relief missions in South America and establishing new flight routes. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1981.
In 1998, at the age of 77, John Glenn returned to space on the Space Shuttle. In theory, he was in space to test the effects of space on senior citizens, but many people think it was just a quid pro quo from NASA after his years of support in the United States Senate.
After this, there was an effort to get Jerri Cobb to fly on the Space Shuttle as well, which would also have given NASA the opportunity to right a wrong. However, they turned down the offer saying, “it had no plans to involve additional senior citizens in upcoming launches”.
In the recent TV series, For All Mankind, which is an alternative history of what would have happened if the Soviets had beaten the Americans to the moon, the Mercury 13 play an important part in the plot.
After the Soviets land a woman on the moon, the Americans rush to get women astronauts, and they look to the Mercury 13 to jump-start the program. In this alternative, fictional history, the first American woman in space and on the moon is Molly Cobb, a nod to the real-life Jerri Cobb.
Jerri Cobb passed away in 2019 at the age of 88.
Jerri Cobb and the other members of the Mercury 13 never flew in space, but they paved the way for the women who came after them who did.