Where No Women Have Gone Before:
Martha Ackmann and the Mercury 13
by Jim Gipe
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
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
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."