Why Did the Mercury 13 Astronauts Never Fly in Space? | Popular Science
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Vintage Space

Exploring the history of space-age efforts that never got off the ground. By Amy Shira Teitel

Why Did the Mercury 13 Astronauts Never Fly in Space?

Jerrie Cobb kicked off her black pumps and crossed her stockinged feet on the floor. It was an unusual thing to do during a public hearing before a special subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, but natural for Cobb. And it was a relaxed gesture that belied her stress. That July day in 1962, she was fighting tooth and nail to claim her rightful place in space alongside the Mercury astronauts.

Cobb and a Mercury Capsule

Cobb and a Mercury Capsule

Jerrie Cobb poses with a Mercury capsule.

NASA

Jerrie Cobb

Three years earlier on April 9, 1959, the world had met the Mercury astronauts. Seven men, all military test pilots with extensive experience flying jets, were handsome, married with families, somewhat religious, and yet embodied the roguish bad-boy nature that made them absolutely irresistible to men and women alike. They were, NASA announced, the brave men who would take America’s first steps into space. They had done nothing in their capacity as astronauts but appear at a press conference and already the nation was in love.

Three days later, Jerrie Cobb took off from McCarran Field in Las Vegas in an Aero Commander. Her route that morning was a 1,242 mile (2,000 km) triangle with Reno, San Francisco, and San Diego as the corners. Cobb has designed the route herself to take advantage of the west coast currents. Her goal was to make the run in less than five-and-a-half hours, stealing the record from a male Soviet pilot to become a national hero in her own right.

Cobb ran into trouble almost immediately. Instrumentation problems left her flying by dead reckoning with a map balanced on her knee. The flare gun installed next to her seat jammed, so instead of safely alerting judges on the ground that she’d arrived she ended up flying with a lit flare hanging out from under her plane. Then her radio failed; she could only hope someone on the ground would know it was her when she passed over San Francisco and log the time. Cloud cover over San Diego forced her to slow down and descend, again to be logged by judges.

Finally onto the last leg of the flight, Cobb pushed the Aero to its limits while manually topping off her fuel tanks from canisters in the cockpit, but made it safely back to McCarran Field. Twenty agonizing minutes later, the official ruling came back. Cobb had covered 1,242 miles in 5 hours, 29 minutes, and 27 seconds, a full 26 seconds faster than the Soviet record holder.

Cobb added this successful speed run to a growing list of records she held, including records for altitude and distance. She also held the distinction of being one of the few professional female pilots in the United States. Like so many young women -- she was 28 at the time -- she’d worked odd jobs to pay for flying time then honed her skills with hours in the air only to find there were few opportunities in a post-war America suddenly flush with military trained male pilots. But Cobb was unique in her willingness to take dangerous, long-haul jobs few pilots wanted. She eked out her place aviation, but with the dawn of the space age, started looking towards the stars.

Dr. Lovelace

Dr. Lovelace

Dr. Randy Lovelace.

NM Space Museum

Lovelace

Space came calling five months later when Cobb was out for a walk along the Florida surf one morning. Talking with her boss Tom Harris, her boss at Aero Commander who’d sanctioned her speed run, two men emerged from the water. Harris knew them both but Cobb only knew of them. They were Brigadier General Donald D. Flickinger, a leader in aerospace medicine, and Dr. Randy Lovelace, the somewhat infamous physician who had poked, prodded, and peeked inside 31 astronaut hopefuls before whittling the group down to the seven Mercury astronauts.

The shoreside chat turned to Russian aeronautics, and when Cobb weighed in about known problems Russian planes pose to pilots, she got the doctors' attention. Lovelace asked if she was a pilot. She replied with a modest yes, then Harris added that she was a substantial record holder with more than 7,000 hours in the air. Lovelace, already interested in the potential of female astronauts, asked Cobb if she would be willing to submit to the same testing he'd put the Mercury astronauts through. In an era when rockets were taxed with lifting a spacecraft, a smaller, lighter occupant consuming fewer resources could be a benefit to the burgeoning American space program. Cobb was more than willing to volunteer to give the doctors a benchmark for women in space.

Five months later, Cobb’s medical records were scrutinised, her flying history vetted, and leave from work granted. She was officially ready to begin her astronaut testing.

Cobb in Astronaut Training

Cobb in Astronaut Training

Cobb training in the gimbal rig at NASA.

NASA

Unit One, Female

Cobb arrived at Lovelace’s New Mexico clinic on February 15, 1960, identified as “unit one, female.” Over the course of one intense week, Cobb went through the same medical testing as her male counterparts. The only difference was the addition of a gynaecological exam. Not only did Cobb pass the tests, she matched the Mercury astronauts across the board, and even performed better in some instances.

Dr. Lovelace kept Cobb’s results secret until the 1960 international symposium of space medicine in Stockholm, Sweden. There he publicly discussed her performance and the possible role women might play in spaceflight. And then the world knew all about Jerrie Cobb. Life magazine seized on the story, and suddenly news outlets across the nation wanted a piece of the woman who was apparently poised to become the first female astronaut. Days later, the eager media met Cobb in a press conference. Eschewing a chic french twist hairstyle for her familiar ponytail, she told the gathered reporters that she was more afraid of grasshoppers than spaceflight. She even admitted that she was less scared of being alone in space than she was being in a room full of reporters.

Media attention soon brought sponsorship offers, but on this point Cobb was firm. She would endorse no product. She wanted the woman in space program to be a serious one, not a stunt backed by a corporate sponsor. And besides, she had to focus on the serious business of her second round of testing. Psychological exams in Oklahoma brought Rorschach tests and isolation experiments. More testing with the Navy in Pensacola Florida, included tests like airborne EKGs that mapped her brain activity while flying in a jet. Once again Cobb matched or outperformed compared to the Mercury astronauts.

The Mercury Astronauts

The Mercury Astronauts

The original Mercury 7 astronauts in Texas.

NASA

The Mercury 13

Cobb’s testing might have attracted the interest of the media, but it was far from a proper program. Lovelace needed more subjects to figure out whether Cobb was exceptional or whether there really was a cohort of incredibly talented and able female pilots ready to train as astronauts.

In the first half of 1961, Lovelace extended invitations to twenty-five accomplished female pilots. Those that were able to take time way from work and family made their way down to Lovelace's clinic to go through the testing. Twelve passed, giving Lovelace a total of thirteen potential female astronauts. These were all women willing and ready to take steps into space. But one famous aviatrix was left out of the group, Lovelace's long-time friend and financial benefactor for the women who couldn't afford their own travel costs, Jackie Cochran. And she wasn't going to give up without a fight.

Jackie Cochran

Jackie Cochran

Jackie Cochran emerging from a cockpit.

Eisenhower Archives

Jackie Cochran

Unlike Cobb, Cochran learned to fly later in life. A licensed beautician, she developed her own cosmetics line in the 1930s, but it didn't really get off the ground until she made a powerful professional and personal connection in Floyd Odlum. Odlum was an astute businessman who not only survived the stock market crash of 1929 but emerged from the depression as one of the ten wealthiest men in the country. He and Cochran wed in 1935.

Odlum helped finance Jacquline Cochran Cosmetics, then suggested his wife learn to fly so she would have an easier time traveling for work. Cochran earned her pilots license after just three weeks of instruction and fell in love with flying. With her finances taken care of, she pursued advanced instruction and honed a natural talent. Before the decade was out, Cochran set three speed records, won the Clifford Burke Harmon trophy three times, and set a world altitude record flying to 33,000 feet.

At 33,000 feet, the air is sufficiently thin that pilots need supplemental oxygen to stay alert in the cockpit. Cochran knew this. She'd flown to high altitudes with sub-par oxygen masks that failed to deliver a constant flow of the vital gas. So when she heard there was a doctor working on a better oxygen masks for pilots she was very keen to meet him.

The doctor was Dr. Lovelace. The pair met at the National Air Races in 1937 and three years later Cochran used her position on the selection committee for the Collier Trophy to secure Lovelace’s place in history.

The Collier Trophy, awarded annually for a major development in aviation, is almost like a timeline of aviation. In 1940, Lovelace along with Dr. Walter Boothby and Captain Harry Armstrong of the US Army Medical Corps were shortlisted for their work in aviation medicine. Cochran campaigned hard for her friend and his colleagues to win the award. She solicited letters from giants in the industry, had powerful friends vouch for the doctors, and personally ensuring reports got into the right hands. She successfully convinced the whole selection committee to award the trophy to Lovelace, Boothby, and Armstrong. The men were thrilled. They acknowledged Cochran's role in their win, and it solidified the friendship between Lovelace and Cochran.

Glenn in training

Glenn in training

John Glen training in the gimbal rig.

NASA

Boys Club

But Cochran’s (arguably) greatest achievement in aviation was yet to come. In 1941, a friendship with General Hap Arnold of the Army Air Force and her successful ferrying of a bomber across the Atlantic for the British Ferry Command put Cochran in charge of the Women's Airforce Service Pilots.

Beginning in 1942, the WASP program trained more than 1,000 pilots for non combat military roles. They ferried planes overseas, towed targets for aerial and ground-based gunnery practise, flew demonstration flights, and served as flight instructors. But never militarized, the WASP program was quietly disbanded towards the end of the war. Nevertheless, it was a huge success for Cochran who was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for her work.

A commonality in her private and professional flying life was that Cochran was the lone woman in the boys club, and she leveraged that role into power. Serious as she was about flying, she was equally serious about her image and was often seen touching up her lipstick before emerging from the cockpit after a record-setting flight, making the men in charge wait in the process. It was a subtle but strong show of power. Now, Cochran found herself on the outside looking in, and was not happy about it.

Jackie Cochran

Jackie Cochran

Jackie Cochran during the Second World War.

USAF

The WASP of Space

The media surrounding Cobb made ample use of attention-grabbing, provocative headlines touting her as the future first woman in space. And while the articles did mention Cochran, they tended to play up her role as a key advisor. In reality, her involvement was largely financial, but she hoped to change that. She advised Lovelace to accept a wider variety of candidates, specifically some older women like herself for the sake of gathering a full data set. When it turned out she was, in her fifties, too old to train, she urged Lovelace to consider making the women’s program a large, long-term one akin to the WASP program with her in charge rather than some crash effort like the Mercury program.

But all the while Cobb’s name was appearing more and more in the press, and Cochran started to feel that this younger pilot was getting preferential treatment, that she was being groomed for spaceflight and no one was telling Cochran. Finally, in May of 1961, Odlum wrote Lovelace a letter. In it, the wealthy benefactor expressed his wife’s displeasure at not being at the centre of the female astronaut program and threatened that she might walk away completely if something didn't change. Lovelace replied apologetically. He promised to give Cochran a more prominent role in the program. But Cochran seemed to have lost her enthusiasm for the women in space program and took a very different approach to the cause.

President Kennedy

President Kennedy

President Kennedy promising America a man on the Moon.

NASA

**NASA Gains a Consultant and a Goal **

Around the same time on May 17, 1961, Lovelace sent a letter to the women who had passed his medical exams. After congratulations, he urged them all to prepare mentally and physically for the next phase of testing at the Naval base in Pensacola. These would be gruelling mental, psychological, and physical tests involving centrifuges and airborne EKGs. He wanted them all ready. Again, Cochran would be funding the women who could not afford the travel costs on her own.

Meanwhile, Cobb campaigned NASA. Aware of reports from the Soviet Union saying the nation was preparing to launch a woman, she wrote to NASA Administrator James Webb expressing her willingness to join the astronaut corps immediately. The letter’s subtext was that she personally would secure the “first” of a woman in space.

And it seemed as though NASA listened. On the evening of May 26, 1961, a conference on the peaceful use of space in Oklahoma ended with a banquet. Webb got up to speak, and though he and Cobb hadn't talked much that night she was clearly on his mind. After introducing Cobb to the attendees, Webb announced her appointment as a consultant to the agency for the role of women in space. Cobb was shocked and thrilled. She finally had an in to NASA, and a strong way to represent her cohort. Three days later, each of the Lovelace women received a letter form Cobb. It began with “Dear Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainee;” they took on the informal nickname of the FLATs from then on. Cobb echoed Lovelace's earlier letter, congratulating the women on the upcoming Pensacola testing.

But another thing happened in May of 1961. President Kennedy was reeling from a double blow, the orbital flight of Yuri Gagarin on Aril 12 and the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs between April 17 and 19. Al Shepard’s suborbital flight on May 5 was good for NASA, but it was clear the Soviets were leading in space. Kennedy wanted to level the playing field, and after consulting with NASA managements seized on the Moon as the new goal in space. Since neither nation was ready for such a mission, it put them on equal footing. On May 25, before a Joint Session of Congress, Kennedy promised America a manned lunar landing by the end of the decade.

Securing congressional funding and support for the Moon landing was Webb’s job, and the program he was selling was one with astronauts who were the epitome of masculinity: rough and crass but nearly super human in strength and bravery. It was a program with national heroes as the face. He wasn’t selling a program led by a shy, petite woman with a blonde ponytail. As Webb’s work with Apollo ramped up, Cobb began to feel like the least consulted consultant in history.

Pensacola

On September 12, 1961, the FLATs preparing for Pensacola got a telegram from Lovelace. It was short and to the point. The testing had been canceled, he informed the women, and would probably not continue. They could return their travel and board stipend to Cochran through him. The short note ended with a promise that he would contact them with should the situation change.

Upon hearing the news, Cobb too a more active tact. She started knocking on doors in Washington but could not get to the bottom of the Pensacola cancellation; there was no paper trail. It seemed that no one had officially ordered the tests not be done, but no one had approved them either. The Navy passed the buck to NASA saying it needed agency approval to do any kind of spaceflight testing program. NASA said the lack of approval was due to there being no official requirement to pursue the program, a similarly evasive answer.

As Cobb worked, she dutifully kept the agency apprised of her progress and that of the FLATs, but NASA was busily laying the groundwork for the Gemini program. For the agency tasked with landing a man on the Moon, the program dedicated to solving problems like orbital rendezvous, spacewalks, and developing the technologies that would facilitate long-durations missions was more important than a woman in space program for the moment. At the end of 1961, Webb wrote Cobb to tell her her consultancy position would not be renewed.

Cobb and Hart

Cobb and Hart

Cobb and Hart testifying at the subcommittee hearings.

via neatorama.com

Face Off

But Cobb did not lose her drive. As 1962 dawned she continued her campaign. Even with a Moon landing on the horizon, there was still a chance for NASA to launch the first woman into space. Unbeknownst to Cobb, Cochran was also campaigning for a woman in space program, only hers was a very different one. The two women, and the whole issue of women in space, came to a head in July of 1962.

The three-day hearing was called by the House of Representatives Committee on Science and Astronautics to investigate the qualification of astronauts. Unofficially, the goal was to investigate whether NASA was unduly discriminating against women. There would be six witnesses: three representing the women and three from NASA.

On the first day, Cobb and fellow lady astronaut trainee Janey Hart took the floor. The women were firm. Cobb argued that NASA should work to put a woman in space before the Soviet Union, that she and twelve other exceptionally accomplished female pilots had all passed the same tests as the Mercury astronauts and were ready to fly on a moment’s notice. She went on to challenge NASA’s requirement that astronauts have jet training. Surely the FLATs, who had more hours in the air than the Mercury astronauts, had equivalent experience. They would be just as successful in spaceflight training as the men had been.

The third woman to take the floor that day was Cochran who arrived midway through Cobb and Hart's testimony. She took the floor last, and presented a very different argument. There was no need to rush a woman in space program, she argued. The time would come when women were needed in space, but that time was not now. For the moment, space was a man's game, like flying had been, and eventually it would be open to women. In the meantime, the FLATs should be patient and let NASA focus on the Moon.

Cochran's remarks were well received by everyone save Cobb and Hart. Which was no surprise. She had cleared the statement with NASA management before the hearings and was dutifully towing the agency's line knowing it also promoted her interest of leading a long-term program.

The following day NASA had the floor. Following pointed questions from congressional representatives, George Low from the Office and Manned Spaceflight acknowledged that a woman in space program would likely derail the national effort of the Moon landing program. John Glenn, just months after securing his hero status after his orbital Friendship 7 flight, reiterated NASA's position. The agency, he said, couldn’t afford a whole new training program in light of the lunar landing goal. Hiding behind this same approved line Cochran had given, NASA representatives continually pointed out that the nation was on its way to the Moon with Apollo. The ladies would have to wait their turn.

The hearing was unceremoniously cut short at the end of the second day. It was an abrupt end to Cobb’s three-year fight for a place in space.

The FLATs

The FLATs

FLATs Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman with the shuttle Discovery in 1995.

NASA

Who Killed the FLATs?

While Cobb was busily campaigning NASA to become for a mission, she was also writing her first autobiography as an additional plea for her cause. “Woman Into Space” was published in 1963, hitting shelves right around the time Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. She launched on June 16 and made 48 orbits around the Earth before returning in fine health.

But Tereshkova’s flight was hardly the stride for women that Cobb and the FLATs wanted. The daughter of a tractor driver-turned-soldier killed in the Finnish War, Tereshkova began working as a seamstress when she was just ten years old to help support her family while also going to school. Tereshkova did graduate, and also qualified as a parachute jumper with the Yaroslavl Air Sports Club. This was an asset for the Soviet space program; unlike American astronauts who splashed down, cosmonauts ejected from their Vostok spacecraft and landed by parachute. When it came to launch a woman, Tereshkova’s background and proficiency with parachutes combined to make her the perfect candidate. She was a product of the Soviet way of life, and her flight promoted the idea that the communist way of life afforded equal opportunities to all, more than the American democratic system.

Tereshkova didn’t mark the beginning of a mixed cosmonaut corps. It was another 19 years before a woman flew in space again; Svetlana Savitskaya beat Sally Ride by weeks.

So what stopped Cobb or one of the other FLATs from flying before Tereshkova? Or from beginning a women in space program that wasn’t a publicity stunt? From a modern standpoint it’s easy to roll eyes at the folly of NASA for not recognizing talented pilots regardless of gender. Comments at the subcommittee hearing were strikingly sexist, but it’s another comment from Glenn that really explains why the FLATs never flew.

When he had the floor, Glenn shielded NASA from blame by putting the onus on society. “I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized really. It is just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable.”

Although NASA was a civilian agency, it was assembled from preexisting military programs and staffed largely with men from a military background. This brought discipline and structure to the new agency, but it also brought a attitude steeped in traditional gender roles. Add to this an astronaut corps culled from an elite brotherhood of hyper-masculine test pilots and the national push for women to fight the war at home by raising the children. There was no room for women astronauts.

As the 1960s wore on the women’s liberation movement challenged traditional gender roles, but it took NASA a while to catch up. At the time of the FLATs senate hearing, the agency really was consumed with the effort to land a man on the Moon. This was such an all-consuming goal that it’s almost as though NASA existed in a bubble. Women’s liberation and civil rights shifted the national landscape but NASA hardly reacted. It was round-the-clock business as usual with engineers wearing buzzcuts and skinny black ties with white shirts.

The FLATs had the right stuff but the wrong timing. They very well could have been an asset to the agency, but the agency just wasn’t ready for them. That Lovelace tested so many women stands as an incredible testament to his forward thinking and breaking against social norms. Sadly, his vision was the minority viewpoint. NASA eventually caught up, changing its astronaut criteria in and accepting women in the class of 1978. But for the FLATs, it was the social order more than anything that kept them grounded.

Sources: Promised the Moon by Stephanie Nolen; Jackie Cochran by Jacqueline Cochran and Maryann Bucknum Brinley; Woman into Space by Jerrie Cobb and Jane Rieker; Right Stuff Wrong Sex by Margaret A. Weitekamp; Eisenhower Archives; Valentina Tereshkova: 50 years of women in space; NASA; Cochran USAF Fact Sheet; List of Collier Trophy Winners.

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