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Mercury 13

First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs)

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7 Members of Mercury 13 in 1995: (from left): Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman (First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs))

7 Members of Mercury 13 in 1995: (from left): Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman

NASA
The sad fact is that for many years, it was a man's world. Throughout history, there have been a few civilizations which gave women the equality they deserve, but the United States was not one of them. Just like the European customs on which it was based, society in the US treated women as second class citizens at best. This continued until only very recently, and some would say continues even now.

In the early 1960s, there were many prejudices, so Dr. William Randolph "Randy" Lovelace II may have been ahead of his time when in 1960, he invited Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb to undergo the physical fitness testing regimen that he had helped to develop select the original U.S. astronauts, the "Mercury Seven." After becoming the first American woman to pass those tests, Jerrie Cobb and Doctor Lovelace publicly announced her test results at a 1960 conference in Stockholm. They then began to recruit more women to take the tests.

Jerrie and Randy were assisted in their efforts by Jacqueline Cochran, who was a famous American aviatrix and an old friend of Dr. Lovelace. She even volunteered to pay for the testing expenses. By the Fall of 1961, a total of 25 women ranging in age from 23 to 41 had come to the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They underwent 4 days of testing, the very same physical and psychological tests as the original Mercury 7 had. While some had learned of the examinations by word of mouth, many were recruited through the Ninety-Nines, a women pilot's organization.

A few of the women took additional tests. Jerrie Cobb, Rhea Hurrle, and Wally Funk went to Oklahoma City for an isolation tank test. Jerrie and Wally also experienced a high-altitude chamber test and the Martin-Baker seat ejection test. Because of other family and job commitments, not all of the women were asked to take these tests.

Out of the original 25 applicants, 13 were chosen for further testing at the Naval Aviation center in Pensacola, FL. The thirteen finalists, the First Lady Astronaut Trainees, were:

  • Jerrie Cobb
  • Wally Funk
  • Irene Leverton
  • Myrtle "K" Cagle
  • Janey Hart
  • Gene Nora Stombough [Jessen]
  • Jerri Sloan
  • Rhea Hurrle [Woltman]
  • Sarah Gorelick [Ratley]
  • Bernice "B" Trimble Steadman
  • Jan Dietrich
  • Marion Dietrich (now deceased)
  • Jean Hixson (now deceased)
Expecting the next round of tests to be the first step in training which would allow them to become astronaut trainees, several of the women quit their jobs in order to be able to go. Shortly before they were scheduled to report, the women received telegrams canceling the Pensacola testing. Without an official NASA request to run the tests, the Navy would not allow the use of their facilities.

Jerrie Cobb (the first woman to qualify) and Janey Hart (the forty-one year old mother who was also married to U.S. Senator Philip Hart of Michigan) campaigned in Washington to have the program continue. They contacted President Kenendy and Vice President Johnson. They attended hearings Janey Hart chaired by Representative Victor Anfuso and testified on behalf of the women. Jackie Cochran, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, and George Low all testified that including women in the Mercury Project or creating a special program for them would be a detriment to the space program. NASA required all astronauts to be jet test pilots and have engineering degrees. Since no women could meet these requirements, no women qualified to become astronauts. The Subcommittee expressed sympathy, but did not rule on the question.

On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. Clare Booth Luce published an article about the FLATs (First Lady Astronaut Trainees) in Life magazine criticizing NASA for not achieving this first. Tereshkova's launch and the Luce article renewed media attention to women in space. Jerrie Cobb made another push to revive the women's testing. It failed.

In 1978, six women were chosen as astronaut candidates by NASA: Rhea Seddon, Kathryn Sullivan, Judith Resnik, Sally Ride, Anna Fisher and Shannon Lucid. On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. On February 3, 1995, Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle. At her invitation, eight of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees attended her launch. On July 23, 1999, Collins also became the first woman Shuttle Commander. She is also scheduled to command the first "Return-To-Flight mission after the space shuttle Columbia disaster grounded the shuttle fleet for over 2 years.

About Astronomy & Space acknowledges the following web sites for their assistance in this article:

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