The Mercury 13: Secret Astronauts

In the early years of the “space race” (1957-1975), two men sought to test a scientifically simple yet culturally complicated theory: that women might be innately better suited for space travel than men.

Two Men and a Theory

One of the men was William R. (“Randy”) Lovelace, II, a Harvard-educated physician, surgeon and aeromedical physiologist. During his years at the Mayo Clinic Lovelace co-developed a much-needed high altitude mask that delivered oxygen to pilots while in flight. At the time, aircraft cabins were not pressurized which lead to hypoxia-induced errors and accidents by pilots. Upon leaving Mayo he established the private Lovelace Foundation for Medical Education and Research, which received government contracts throughout the ’50s to conduct aerospace research. Lovelace was also among the team of experts who developed the physiological, medical and psychological criteria by which astronaut candidates were assessed and selected, including the Mercury 7 team.

The other man, General Donald Flickinger, Air Force chief of bioastronautics at the Air Force Air Research and Development Command (ARDC), was a member of the NASA Special Advisory Committee on Life Sciences and a friend and oft-time collaborator with Lovelace. In 1959 Flickinger established the Woman in Space Earliest (WISE) program at ARDC. Thereafter, he and Lovelace began to contemplate plans for testing women in space.

Their proposition was based purely on physiology and practicality. They recognized that women’s lighter weights would reduce the amount of propulsion fuel being used by the rocket’s load and that women would require less auxiliary oxygen than men. They knew that women had fewer heart attacks than men and their reproductive system was thought to be less susceptible to radiation than a male’s. Finally, preliminary data suggested that women could outperform men in enduring cramped spaces and prolonged isolation.

Woman in Space Program

Before WISE testing could begin the Air Force announced that it would no longer pursue the program. In response, Lovelace established a privately funded effort, the Woman in Space Program, in 1959. A total of 19 women were enrolled, most of whom had been selected from flight schools.

The women underwent the identical tests that male candidates had undergone. In the end, 68% of the women passed with “no medical reservations” compared to 56% of the men. The 13 females who passed were known as the Mercury 13: Bernice “Bea” Steadman, Janey Hart, Geraldine “Jerri” Sloan Truhill (whose life was featured in the documentary “She Should Have Gone to the Moon”), Rhea Allison Woltman, Sarah Lee Gorelick Ratley, Jan DietrichMarion Dietrich, Myrtle Cagle, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Jessen, Jean Hixson, Wally Funk and Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb.

Jerrie Cobb

Jerrie Cobb testing Gimbal Rig. Credit: Wikipedia.

Jerrie Cobb Goes to Washington

Despite Cochran’s funding and the promising results, the Pensacola testing had not been authorized and the military would not move forward. Lovelace could not pursue the Woman in Space program further. Cobb assumed the de facto leadership of the women and began extensive lobbying efforts. In a meeting with then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson, he expressed no support for the program. Embittered by her experience Jerrie Cobb continued to lobby until 1965. For the next five years she flew missionary operations in the Amazon and in 1980 was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.

It would be more than 30 years after the testing that 11 of the 13 Mercury women would be reunited. This time, 1995, they came to watch Eileen Collins pilot the first flight of the joint Russian-American Space Program.

The Mercury 13

Image: NASA

The vision of Lovelace and Flickinger to launch the Woman in Space Program in 1959 was remarkable not only for the science it attempted to discover, but for the times. The combination of this ingenuity and the capability and willingness of the women in the program ultimately allowed the space program to advance as far as it did.


Good Reads:

For a look at the intersection of physiology, spaceflight and politics, check out “A Forgotten Moment in Physiology: The Lovelace Woman in Space Program (1960-1962),” by Kathy Ryan, Jack Loeppky and Donald Kilgore. 



Featured image, NASA.

Video playlist, The Mercury Channel.

Article excerpted from  “A Woman in Space”,  e! Science News.

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