Monday, March 30, 2009

The Mercury 13 by Martha Ackmann

I do not remember who recommended this book to me, but since my daughter was studying space in class I thought I would finally sit down and read it. It was not the inspiring story I thought it might be from the subtitle: The Untold Story of the Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight. This book is set primarily in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and the first woman, Sally Ride, did not make it into space until 1983. The first female commander (pilot) was Eileen Collins in 1999. Obviously the thirteen women profiled in this book never made it into space.

The author details the lives of these thirteen (and a few more) extraordinary pilots. Many set distance, altitude and speed records. She describes the tests the women underwent, which were comparable to those of the Mercury 7 – the first seven astronauts chosen by NASA in 1959. The way in which these men were chosen automatically limited the field as the author points out here:
“Eisenhower initially believed that astronauts should come from a variety of professions – arctic explorers, mountain climbers, meteorologist, flight surgeons, deep-sea divers. People with a wide range of abilities and perspectives would enhance space exploration, he thought. But the President changed his mind. In late 1958 he decided that NASA should narrow the field and choose astronauts from the ranks of military jet test pilots, a field that barred women and included few minority men.”
It was surprising to me to learn that the Army was the first to allow female military jet test pilots in 1974, the Navy in 1983, and the Air Force not until 1988.

Jerrie Cobb is the female candidate profiled the most extensively and the one who went through the most tests. The tests were privately done and primarily overseen by Dr. Randy Lovelace who was interested in the possibilities of women in space and how their tests might differ from men. The tests were eventually shut down by NASA. Cobb and a fellow hopeful candidate, Janey Hart, appealed to the vice-president Lyndon Johnson. Janey Hart was a senator’s wife and the mother of 8 children. Johnson’s assistant had drawn up a letter for him to send to NASA’s head that was slightly supportive of having women astronauts, and here is what Johnson wrote on it:
“In his distinctive hand, Johnson announced the verdict that Hart, Cobb, and the press never knew: ‘Lets Stop This Now!’”

A congressional hearing as well as some fighting over control of the Mercury 13 group did not change anything. Another woman extensively profiled in the book is Jackie Cochran, who at the time was too old for the tests – possibly in her fifties. She had headed the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) during WWII. She was also the only woman with jet test experience due to her connections. She is portrayed as doing everything in her power to keep women out of space if she couldn’t be the first one or at least in charge of picking who would be first.

The Mercury 13 is an interesting book to read, and a part of our history that we shouldn’t overlook, even if it is slightly depressing.

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