NASA'S Sexism Lost in Nostalgia Over Glenn Flight

Thursday, October 29, 1998 - 12:00

This commentary ran in the following papers: Atlanta Journal Constitution Oct. 29, Miami Herald Nov. 1, Providence JournalOct. 29, Christian Science Monitor Nov. 6, Anchorage Daily News Nov. 3, Philadelphia Inquirer Nov. 2, Dayton Daily News Nov. 3, Idaho Statesman Oct. 31, Boston Globe Nov. 9, Charlotte Observeron Oct. 31, and the Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader Nov. 8.

No one will be following John Glenn more this week than Jerrie Cobb. That's because following Glenn is exactly what Cobb has always wanted to do. In 1961, after being recruited by NASA and run through the same rigorous tests, Cobb--like Glenn--was deemed exceptionally qualified for the young astronaut program.

But unlike Glenn, she had her job snatched away just as she was ready to launch into the final phase of training. At the eleventh hour, NASA reconsidered and decided Cobb lacked the right stuff. No woman, it seems--no matter how qualified--would be eligible for the Mercury Program. Now 37 years later, Jerrie Cobb wants the opportunity that NASA's sexism denied her.

Strikingly, few Americans remember or have even heard of the Mercury 13. They were a group of highly trained women aviators who were called to Albuquerque in 1961 for secret tests to measure their physical and mental fitness for spaceflight. A group of independent scientists, the VA, representatives from the military, and NASA were curious to see if women could hold up to the same grueling tests men endured and evaluated Jerrie Cobb and 12 other women.

One of the most extreme tests measured if women could handle "profound sensory isolation." Cobb was lowered into an 8-foot tank of warm water. Called "the dog dip," the tank was located in a small airtight room with thick steel walls: no sound, no smells, so stimulation of any kind. While male astronauts were kept isolated in another less extreme chamber for only three hours, Cobb endured nine hours and 40 minutes in the tank without any occurence of hallucinations. She later reported, "I did sneak a couple of naps."

Cobb and the other women did well--frankly better than evaluators expected. Faced with the very real possibility of women competing with men for a chance to orbit the earth, NASA slammed the door shut.

The Mercury 13, many of whom had quit hard-won aviation jobs to take part in the Albuquerque testing, were sharply disappointed. Cobb, the first and the top candidate of the group, petitioned NASA. After little response, she appealed to the US Congress in 1962 for an official hearing on qualifications for astronauts.

After opening statements, Representative Victor Anfuso of New York set the tone for the discussion that followed. "I think that we can safely say . . . that the whole purpose of space exploration is to some day colonize these other planets and I don't see how we can do that without women," he declared to an audience erupting in laughter.

Day two of the hearings was not much better for Cobb's cause. Brought in to testify were NASA Director of Flight Missions, George Low, and fresh from their triumphant solo flights, Scott Carpenter and John Glenn. Women must be better-than, rather than equal-to men was Glenn's position, underscoring the approach NASA had taken in the "dog dip" test. He added, "The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order."

The committee swiftly concluded its work, advocating that all future astronauts come from the ranks of military jet test pilots. Since no women were allowed to train as test pilots, the policy officially excluded Jerrie Cobb and the others from ever becoming astronauts.

The Mercury 13 dispersed to pick up their lives. Cobb quit her position as an executive with an aviation firm and took a job flying food, clothing, medicine, and personnel into the Amazon rainforest. Her work to sustain the land and its indigenous peoples has occupied her life and gained her respect for the last three decades.

With the announcement of Glenn's return to space, a movement has surfaced to reacquaint the American public with the story of the Mercury 13 and Jerrie Cobb's desire to be seriously considered for an upcoming flight. So far NASA has offered only the coolest of responses, indicating only a "fortunate few could represent us all."

During this week of so much nostalgia about the thrilling Mercury flights of the 1960s and John Glenn's undeniable courage then and now, we also must acknowledge that his place in our national imagination comes at the cost of excluding others.

There is a danger in cloaking ourselves in a deluded romanticism that recalls a simpler time when there were "true heroes" and hope for the future. Seeking to replicate that past replicates its accompanying sexism as well--a sexism that blocked the Mercury 13 from reaching the future they had worked to secure and barred Jerrie Cobb from offering the country the full measure of her character.

In denying her a chance in 1961 and again in 1998, NASA robs Jerrie Cobb of her place in history. That discrimination takes from us as well the soaring image of another hero who could represent us all.


Martha Ackmann is a women's studies professor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts.



###