Do You Know These Women – Part V

Dr. Randy Lovelace did the physical testing for NASA to help with the selection of the Mercury astronauts. His vision went much beyond just getting a man into orbit around the earth. He thought someday we would have space stations orbiting the earth where science research could be done. If that should happen, women would need to be included as secretaries, laboratory assistants, nurses. That led him to wonder if women were physically fit to handle the pressures that spaceflight demanded.

Accordingly, he set up a privately funded project in Albuquerque, New Mexico and invited 25 different women pilots to participate. They would take the same tests that the Mercury astronauts had taken.

Privately funded in large part by the first woman to break the sound barrier, Jacqueline Cochran, records of more than 700 female pilots were reviewed before the 25 were invited to come to New Mexico and participate in these tests.

Given the same physical and psychological exams that the Mercury 7 men had taken, 12 women passed Phase 1 tests. These tests were strenuous and included having ice water shot into their ears which froze their inner ear. This allowed doctors to determine how quickly they recovered from vertigo. They were subjected to electric shock to their forearms to test their reflexes.

Phase II tests included seeing if they could withstand hours of isolation in a sensory deprivation tank and other experiments to determine women’s physiology and mental strength.

Army pulmonologist, Kathy Ryan, has taken a look at the test results of these women and compared them with the Mercury astronaut candidates. She determined that women on average did better than the men especially in the isolation tests and sensory-deprivation tests. Studies in Britain, Canada and the USA have all confirmed that these women did as well as the men.

So why did nothing come of these women’s attempts to be part of the space program? The American culture was just not ready for women to take an equal role with men. One of the women, Jerrie Cobb, spoke before Congress and also visited with then Vice President Lyndon Johnson.

Another strong advocate was Janie Hart who testimony before Congress included the statement:

‘I strongly believe women should have a role in space research – in fact, it’s inconceivable to me that the world of outer space should be restricted to men only, like some sort of stag club.

‘One hundred years ago, it was quite inconceivable that women should serve as hospital attendants; their essentially frail and emotional structure would never stand the horrors of a military dressing station. Finally, it was agreed to allow some women to try it – provided they were middle-aged and ugly (ugly women presumably having more strength of character.) I submit, Mr Chairman, that a woman in space today is no more preposterous than a woman in a field hospital 100 years ago.’

The hero of the first space program, John Glenn, said “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable.”

The 13 women who passed the initial physical tests were:

Jerrie Cobb (now deceased)
Wally Funk
Irene Leverton (now deceased)
Myrtle “K” Cagle (now deceased)
Jane B. Hart (now deceased)
Gene Nora Stumbough [Jessen]
Jerri Sloan [Truhill] (now deceased)
Rhea Hurrle [Woltman] (now deceased)
Sarah Gorelick [Ratley] (now deceased)
Bernice “B” Trimble Steadman (now deceased)
Jan Dietrich (now deceased)
Marion Dietrich (now deceased)
Jean Hixson (now deceased)

Regardless of these women’s fight for inclusion in the space program NASA did not select any female astronaut candidates until 1978. Although both Cobb and Cochran made separate appeals for years afterward to restart a women’s astronaut testing project, the U.S. civil space agency did not select any female astronaut candidates until the 1978 class of Space Shuttle astronauts. In 1983 Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983 and in 1995 Eileen Collins was the first woman to pilot the Space Shuttle. She also was the first woman to command a Space Shuttle mission in 1999.

Eileen Collins invited the women who once aspired to fly into space to join her as she piloted the Space Shuttle.

Members of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs, also known as the “Mercury 13”), these seven women who once aspired to fly into space stand outside Launch Pad 39B near the Space Shuttle Discovery in this photograph from 1995. The so-called Mercury 13 was a group of women who trained to become astronauts for America’s first human spaceflight program in the early 1960s. Although FLATs was never an official NASA program, the commitment of these women paved the way for others who followed. Visiting the space center as invited guests of STS-63 Pilot Eileen Collins, the first female shuttle pilot and later the first female shuttle commander, are (from left): Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. Photo courtesy of NASA.

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