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May 23 , 2003

Going Where No Women Have Gone Before:
Martha Ackmann and the Mercury 13

Photo by Jim Gipe

Martha Ackmann

Martha Ackmann's new book, The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight (Random House), is due to hit bookstores June 3, but it has already landed her a spot on the Today Show (June 18, the twentieth anniversary of astronaut Sally Ride's historic launch); an article in People magazine (planned for an issue in late May or June); and a starred review in Publishers Weekly, which noted, "This is the story The Right Stuff didn't tell . . . a terrific book." The book also will be serialized in a three-part installment in newspapers across the country. CBS is even planning a made-for-television movie based on the book, which is the first U.S. full-length study of the women's astronaut program rejected by NASA in 1962.

More acclaim is sure to follow, as The Mercury 13 has all the ingredients of a best-seller—a gripping real-life tale of injustice; a behind-the-scenes look at the early days of space exploration; and fascinating "characters"—unsung heroines remarkable for their determination and bravery. Ackmann, Mount Holyoke senior lecturer in women's studies, will read from The Mercury 13 at the Odyssey Bookshop, Wednesday, June 4, at 7 pm.

The Mercury 13
unfolds like this. In 1961, as the United States raced to catch up with Soviet advances in space, Randolph Lovelace II, head of NASA's Life Sciences Committee, wondered whether women were viable candidates for space flight. Aviation journals claimed that women pilots were inferior to their male counterparts and unreliable due to brain changes during menstruation, but Lovelace was unconvinced. He wanted to gather scientific data about women's strength and endurance. To this end, Lovelace secretly invited record-holding pilot Jerrie Cobb and two dozen other top female pilots for medical testing at NASA's de facto medical department, the Lovelace Foundation for Medical Research in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Eighteen women jumped at the chance.

Unlike male pilots, whose testing was directed and supported by the military, the women recruited by Lovelace operated in secrecy. Some even sacrificed jobs and marriages for the opportunity to challenge themselves and serve their country. Pilot Sarah Gorelick ultimately felt forced to resign from AT&T's engineering department, reluctant to test her boss's goodwill with requests for unexplained time off. Jerri Sloan's father-in-law had warned, "The worst thing you can do is to be in competition with your husband." His words proved true. Sloan's husband, also a pilot, tried to derail his wife's testing and ultimately served her with divorce papers after she pursued testing without his support.

Interrupting personal and professional lives, each woman flew to Albuquerque for a week of tests that included exhausting endurance exercises, brain-wave measurements, electrical stimulation to the nerves, tilt tables, and three feet of rubber hose down the throat. Several of the women also underwent pioneering sensory isolation tests in the psychiatric department at the Oklahoma City Veterans Hospital.

"Every part of our bodies was x-rayed," said renowned aviator Wally Funk, who spoke at MHC in 2001, recalling the grueling tests. "We had water injected into our ears to freeze the inner ear. That was very painful, but pain didn't matter to me. I wanted this so bad that it was okay, and I knew that there were to be other painful things to come. Our hands and our feet were submerged in icy water. We drank radioactive water that was measured as it was expelled from our bodies. We had to drink barium; we had barium enemas."

All of the women performed beyond expectations, some even better than their male counterparts. Cobb and twelve other women were invited to continue: Bernice Steadman, Janey Hart, Jerri Truhill, Rhea Hurrle, Sarah Ratley, Jan and Marion Dietrich, Myrtle Cagle, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Stumbough, Jean Hixson, and Wally Funk. Lovelace asked them to travel to the U.S. Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Pensacola, Florida, for flight simulation tests, including reaction to G-loads, violent seat ejection, and space-high altitudes. Three times the tests were rescheduled, and three times the women negotiated time away from jobs and families. Then, just before the women were to begin their simulation exercises, NASA halted Lovelace's program, sacrificing another "first" to the Soviets—the chance to put the first woman in space. (Amateur parachutist Valentina Tereshkova flew for the USSR aboard Vostok 6 in 1963, twenty years before Sally Ride would go to space.)

If the U.S. allowed women in space, then blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, and other minorities would want to fly, too, explained Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who was questioned by two of the Mercury 13. Plenty of (white) male pilots are available for astronaut training, so women astronauts are not "required," said NASA at congressional hearings prompted by the women's appeals. Astronaut John Glenn, just back from the first U.S. manned orbit around Earth, testified at those hearings. "The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order," he said, missing his chance to effect social change. Even the famous aviator Jackie Cochran, who had supported the Mercury 13 financially and politically, testified that a women's space program should not interfere with progress by male astronauts.

The hearings concluded with a report from the House Committee on Science and Astronautics. NASA's program of selection was "basically sound and properly directed," it said. After making a big splash in the media right after the hearings, the Mercury 13 dropped out of the public eye and became invisible, even to space aficionados like Ackmann.

"I grew up feeling that I knew a lot about the industry," says Ackmann, whose father was a mapmaker for the Aeronautical Chart and Information Center in Saint Louis, where McDonnell Aircraft designed the first space capsule for Project Mercury. "It came as great surprise to me to discover a woman I'd never heard about." Ackmann knows a lot about women who choose physically challenging, even dangerous, work. A frequent feminist commentator in the national media, she has written about Colonel Eileen Collins, NASA's first woman shuttle commander; female athletes in the NBA; and many other women pioneers who know and embrace the risks of their professions.

Ackmann discovered the name Jerrie Cobb in a 1997 newspaper article about NASA's plans to take John Glenn on a second space trip, purportedly for tests on the effect of space flight on aging. Cobb was angry about Glenn's flight, the article said, and was asking NASA for her turn in space. "I began to do research then and found the story to be simply fascinating," says Ackmann, who hopes her account will help rescue the Mercury 13 from obscurity.

Although Eileen Collins acknowledges the women who "kicked open the door for her," the Mercury 13 have not been recognized for their contributions, says Ackmann. Their story is not told in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum or at Cape Canaveral's Kennedy Space Center. When Glenn was selected as a 1998 shuttle passenger, NASA was not moved by the Mercury 13's requests to also test Jerrie Cobb. When the Kennedy Space Center coordinated symposia on women's milestones in space flight with the launch of Collins's shuttle in 1999, not one of the surviving Mercury 13 was invited to participate. Forty years after her testing, Jerri Truhill says she is still waiting for "someone to say thank you."

Ackmann attributes much of the neglect to "cultural amnesia." "People just don't know the story," she says. "I hope that my book will inspire some of its thirteen main characters to tell more of their story and that it will contribute to erasing some of our cultural amnesia. I also hope it will explode the myth that women haven't been involved in all facets of public life. In my interviews, I was impressed by how fiercely these women wanted to participate in the national life of the United States. They wanted to be useful, to live large, to contribute something to their country. The space story is a metaphor for women's contributions in all areas—medicine,
politics, athletics—and the terrible price we pay, the loss of talents and energy, when racism or sexism comes into play."


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