The Mercury 13 Women:
A political, technical, and not-very-pretty tale of women in space
Aug 05 2010

by tmartin on August 5, 2010

AS EVERYONE WHO has ever had a child in school knows, June comes with a reading list. You know, that group of titles from which your summering youngster must select and report back on in September?

We’re lucky in our little cottage because a) said summering youngster likes to read and b) the books on the list are usually pretty good.

This year, one book in particular grabbed me. It made me happy, it made me angry, and it made we wonder how we as a society could justify tossing half our talent pool out of the worlds of technology and exploration for so long.

The book is Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream, by Tanya Lee Stone (publisher: Candlewick Press, 2009).

It is written for middle school readers – and I guess it has a happy and inspirational ending in that women have finally commanded space shuttles and presumably little girls are no longer automatically told to marry their dreams rather than to live them. But still…

Let’s wind up the way back machine, back to the summer of 1969 … it is July 20th and Apollo 11 has landed on the moon. Me — and bunches of other little girls like me — have been following the story, thinking about space, learning about stars and maybe even dreaming of becoming a scientist or an astronaut. This is inspiration stuff!

But in a traditional American town, our aspirations are quickly snuffed as our teachers tell us that boys are astronauts. Girls can marry them.

And yet, in a largely-hidden chapter of history, women had already successfully passed the tests to become astronauts! We just didn’t know that.

In 1959, Look Magazine did a feature on a highly-skilled pilot named Betty Skelton. In collaboration with NASA’s PR team, they had her take a number of astronaut tests (which she aced!) and created a cover story that raised the profile of the space program — yet the highly-qualified Skelton was never really considered an astronaut candidate. It was all a promotion game.

At about the same time, Dr. W. Randolph Lovelace, then chair of NASA’s Life Sciences Committee and the doctor who ran the Mercury 7 test program, and Brigadier General Donald Flickinger created a program called Women in Space Earliest, aka Project WISE. It was run largely in secret.

Their first recruit was Jerrie Cobb. She had more than 7,000 air hours (far more than any of the male candidates), and had set the world record for altitude as well holding the world light-plane speed record. Even though the Air Force was not in favor of female pilots, let alone astronauts, she was unquestionably the Right Stuff.

In early 1960 she went to Los Alamos for the full battery of tests: freezing water injected in her ears, radioactive water snaked down her throat, spinning tilt tables, psychological battering – all 87 tests the Mercury 7 men had taken.

She passed them all.

The Lovelace Foundation subsequently recruited 19 women for testing. During the first 6 months of 1961, 13 of them passed each and every test. They were informally dubbed the “Mercury 13″ (

Jerrie Cobb, Bernice Steadman, Janey Hart, Jerri Truhill, Rhea Woltman, Sarah Ratley, Jan and Marion Dietrich, Myrtle Cagle, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Jessen, Jean Hixson, Wally Funk.

They were women … and moms … and wives (even a senator’s wife!) … and fiancees … they were working pilots, working engineers, working teachers … they had thousands upon thousands of air hours, and they had technical skills, physical abilities, and content knowledge to stand on equal ground with the Mercury 7 men.

But then, in September 1961, political reality hit. Sending a “woman to do a man’s job” did not project the image of international strength the federal administration wanted.

Further testing was canceled.

The political process began — except that after the stellar test results, the question could no longer ask IF women were qualified. Instead, the question morphed into: should qualified women be allowed to play?

Within the year, proponents had worked the system, eventually reaching Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who was also head of the National Aeronautics and Space Council. He was the key person shaping NASA’s decisions.

A letter was drafted for Johnson to present to James Webb, the head of NASA. Decades later during the course of academic research, the letter was found — filed. Johnson had taken the letter and written in large scrawl across the bottom half of the page:


In a 2007 interview Cobb talked about a conversation she had had with the vice president at the time.

“Jerrie,” she recollected he said, “If we let you or other women into the space program, we’d have to let blacks in. We’d have to let Mexican Americans in, and Chinese American. We’d have to let every minority in, and we just can’t do it.”

The proponents got a Congressional hearing too. Space hero John Glenn’s testimony included this statement:

    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 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.


The program was over by the end of 1962.

On June 16, 1963, the Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to fly in space.

Yes, this story is history, and maybe we’ve even made progress since then. And yet it remains a timeless – and cautionary tale, a tale about the intersection of technology and political interests, of the way that resources are thrown away for business or political demands.

Look around us today at the emerging science and technology developments. Take a second and a third even closer look at what is shaping their direction and who is allowed to create it.

Is our science defined by political bent? Is research dictated by business terms at the expense of all else? Are there paths not taken and talents not tapped because a notion of social order?

From bandwidth access to biomedical break-throughs, I suspect the answers are not as pure as we might wish.

It is too late to do more than ponder “what if” for the impact that the “Mercury 13″ might have had — but it is never to late to be aware of our present.

Science matters. Technology matters. But they and their practitioners do not operate in a vacuum. We all need to press for full use of resources and for an open embrace of those who would and could contribute — if only we are willing to keep our eyes open and unlock the door.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: