History tells us that in 1963 Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was the first Russian woman in space and that in 1983 Dr. Sally Ride became the first American woman in orbit.
But as is typical when it comes to the accomplishments of women, a chapter is missing in the story of the "space race." That chapter is "The Mercury 13". Before we note the military women who are currently with NASA as astronauts, let's take a look at what happened in the early '60s.
Valentina Tereshkova Dr. Sally Ride
When NASA began training the Mercury astronauts, and before the Soviets made Valentina Tereshkova the first woman to go into space, 13 American women had qualified for astronaut duty. In late 1959 a project cloaked in secrecy began to develop at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Twenty five of the nation's top women pilots were selected to participate in it. Jerrie Cobb was the first woman pilot selected to report to the Lovelace Clinic for Phase One of the tests. When she reported for astronaut training Jerrie Cobb had logged over 10,000 flight hours (John Glenn had only 5,000 and Scott Carpenter 2,900.) She went through the exact rigorous testing as male astronaut candidates. Cobb was studied, tested, prodded, tilted, spun, exhausted with excercise, and put in sensory depravation for over ten hours.
Her test results were so extraordinary, she was sent to the Naval School of Aviation at Pensacola for Phase II of the program, and the other 25 women began Phase I testing.
Twelve of these women, as well as Jerrie Cobb, came through with exceptional test results and were selected - and sworn to secrecy - to become The Mercury 13.
Rhea Allison, Jane Hart, Mary Wallace Funk (known as Wally), Jean Hixson, Myrtle 'K" Cagle, Irene Leverton, Sara Ratley, Jan and Marion Dietrich (twin sisters) , Gene Nora Jessen, 'B' Steadman and Gerry Sloan Truhill.
As the women waited for the next phase of their training, suddenly, without warning, and without explanation, in July 1961, NASA cancelled all further testing of women. The Mercury 13 women were unable to get answers from NASA - even though these women had all proved to be more than suitable for space flight. In fact studies showed that women were less prone to heart attacks and less vulnerable to loneliness, cold, heat, pain and noise. The fact that women weighed less was in itself cost effective since the cost to send anything in orbit was roughly $1,000 per pound. A Congressional subcommittee met in July of 1962 to review the scenario of women being denied space travel. NASA responded with a Catch 22 loophole - they used the fact that the female trainees had never gone through the jet-aircraft testing at Edwards Air Force base. The catch was that women were not yet eligible for jet-pilot training programs - and they wouldn't be allowed in until 1973.
It's doubtful that anyone around today knows the real reasons women were denied space travel in the '60s - some will hide behind the "public opinion theory", others will say that the women were too good, and the usual bureaucratic bilge will be found in aging reports.
What we do know is that thirteen exceptional women pilots were denied the chance to participate in the space program in 1961 !!
Ironically, thirty four years later, seven of the Mercury 13 witnessed America's first woman pilot astronaut, Col. Eileen Collins launch at Cape Kennedy on February 3, 1995. Col. Collins was the pilot on STS-63 Discovery.
John Glenn returned to space at age 76.
Well wouldn't it be nice if NASA would extend the same invitation to Jerrie Cobb, who is still flying!!
Fortunately the NASA people and the NASA attitude that prevailed in the '60s do not exist today with respect to women in space. Since Dr. Ride's trip in 1983 several women have been involved in space travel and some of them are military women.
Military Woman Astronaut part of crew to live in space:
During the STS-102 mission, Discovery carried the Expedition Two crew - Russian Commander Yury Usachev and Americans Jim Voss and Susan Helms - to the orbiting science outpost.
Air Force Colonel Susan Helms was one of the Flight Engineers spending four months living on the International Space Station beginning in March 2001. She was the first female to take up residence on the space station.
For more about the
Space station please visit:
NASA - STS-102
Sunita Williams sets new record for women (AFP) 16 June 2007
WASHINGTON - A US astronaut of Indian heritage made history early Saturday when she set a new record for the longest uninterrupted space flight by a woman. At 1:47 am (0547 GMT), International Space Station (ISS) engineer Sunita Williams surpassed the 188-day, 4-hour mark set by her compatriot Shannon Lucid in 1996, according to US space officials. It was not the first record set by Williams, who began her space journey last December 10. Earlier this year, she logged 29 hours and 17 minutes in four space walks, eclipsing the record held by astronaut Kathryn Thornton for most spacewalk time by a woman. And last April, she became the first astronaut to run a marathon in orbit, finishing it in four hours and 24 minutes.
Several military women are participating, or have participated, in the space program, on loan to NASA from their respective services.
Col Eileen Collins, U.S. Air Force Col Susan Helms, U.S. Air Force Lt Col Nancy Jane Currie, U.S. Army Cmdr. Wendy Lawrence, U.S. Navy Col Yvonne Cagle, U.S. Air Force Cmdr. Susan Kilrain, U.S. Navy
Cmdr K Hire USNR Lt Col Pam Melroy,USAF Lt Cmdr. Sunita Williams, U.S.N. Lt Col Catherine G. Coleman, USAF Cmdr. Laurel Clark, USN Cmdr. Lisa Nowak, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper,
For detailed biographical on each of these astronauts visit NASA:
Women AstronautsFor a lot more information about women in aviation and space visit some of the following excellent sites:
- Catherine G. "Cady" Coleman
- Yvonne Cagle
- Eileen Collins
- Nancy Currie
- Susan Helms
- Kathryn Hire
- Susan-Still Kilrain
- Wendy Lawrence
- Pamela Melroy
- Lisa Nowak
- Laurel Clark
- Sunita Williams
- Heidemarie Piper
Women in Aviation
- Women In Aviation, International
- Women's Air & Space Museum
- Ninety-Nines and read about the Mercury 13 on their site at Wally Funk
Be sure to check out this book - "The Mercury 13" by Martha Ackerman -
In 1961, just as NASA launched its first man into space, a group of women underwent secret testing in the hopes of becoming America's first female astronauts. They passed the same battery of tests at the legendary Lovelace Foundation as did the Mercury 7 astronauts, but they were summarily dismissed by the boys' club at NASA and on Capitol Hill. The USSR sent its first woman into space in 1963; the United States did not follow suit for another twenty years. For the first time, Martha Ackmann tells the story of the dramatic events surrounding these thirteen remarkable women, all crackerjack pilots and patriots who sometimes sacrificed jobs and marriages for a chance to participate in America's space race against the Soviet Union. In addition to talking extensively to these women, Ackmann interviewed Chuck Yeager, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, and others at NASA and in the White House with firsthand knowledge of the program, and includes here never-before-seen photographs of the Mercury 13 passing their Lovelace tests.
This exciting new site features Profiles of Frontier Women representing a variety of careers - this select group of "women firsts" were chosen based on their unique backgrounds and professions. Female Frontiers combines the resources of the NASA Quest projects - Women of NASA, Space Team Online and Learning Technology Channel. As Eileen Collins became the First Woman Shuttle Commander on Shuttle mission STS-93, in the spring of 1999, she set an example that can inspire today's young women to excellence.
Also see Col Collins for more about the mission.
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