Not just Sally Ride

I had never heard of the Women in Space Program before, but apparently, after the Soviets sent Valentina Tereshkova into space, there was actually an effort to train American women as astronauts.

The participants of the Women in Space Program experienced tremendous success. “Nineteen women enrolled in WISP, undergoing the same grueling tests administered to the male Mercury astronauts,” Brandon Keim wrote in 2009. “Thirteen of them — later dubbed the Mercury 13 — passed ‘with no medical reservations,’ a higher graduation rate than the first male class. The top four women scored as highly as any of the men.”

The graduates were Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb, Wally Funk, Irene Leverton, Myrtle “K” Cagle, Jane B. Hart, Gene Nora Stumbough, Jerri Sloan, Rhea Hurrle, Sarah Gorelick, Bernice “B” Trimble Steadman, Jan Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, and Jean Hixson, called the “Mercury 13”.

I never heard of them before. They didn’t go into space, either. What happened?

Well, there were some revoltingly sexist attitudes at NASA.

In fact, one NASA official who declined to give his name to a reporter, said it made him “sick to his stomach” to think of women in space. Another called Tereshkova’s flight “a publicity stunt.”

A few did think of one use for women in space: “improving crew morale”. They nixed that because “such a situation might create interpersonal tensions far more dynamic than the sexual tensions it would release”. Yeah, they went there: the one thing a woman astronaut might be good for is getting her male colleagues off during long space flights.

So they come up with a lovely catch to prevent well-qualified women from joining the space program.

For a short while, it seemed that their quest to fly might advance. In 1962, the women were scheduled to continue testing at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Pensacola, Florida, but NASA declined to support their visit. Without official backing, the Navy canceled the trip. Cobb tried to save the program, flying to Washington and testifying before Congress. But NASA officials, John Glenn among them, told the Congressmen that women couldn’t be astronauts because they hadn’t flown jets, which were only available to the military, which also barred women.

This argument apparently proved persuasive and the Mercury 13 never got another chance to make their case for space, even after Tereshkova’s record-setting flight.

Would you believe I got a comment from a Thunderf00t acolyte on youtube just this morning?


Nice to know these problems have all gone away already.


  1. #1 Jayme Blaschke
    July 25, 2012

    Martha Ackmann’s book, “THE MERCURY THIRTEEN: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight,” is an excellent (and maddening) account of their story. Well worth a read if you’re interested in this aspect of space program history.

  2. #2 Don Burnette
    July 25, 2012

    PZ, you’re rapidly depleting the world’s supply of straw. It’s a real shame.

  3. #3 Jim Fehlinger
    July 25, 2012

    In the science fiction community, including both authors and
    readers, there were some equally disgusting attitudes
    about the idea of women in space during that era, as
    recounted in Julie Phillips’ biography
    of author “James Tiptree” (Alice B. Sheldon).
    Arthur C. Clarke comes off particularly badly in an incident
    that happened in 1975, more than a decade after
    Valentina Tereshkova had gone into orbit for the
    Russians (and years after _Star Trek_ had come and gone.
    And _2001: A Space Odyssey_, for that matter).

    (pp. 330 – 331):

    “The science fiction community as a whole was in an
    odd position regarding feminism. On one hand, most
    of the writers and fans were men. In 1974, women still
    made up less than 20 percent of SFWA’s membership.
    And most of those men, even those who were using SF
    to address other social issues, were still not ready
    to question gender relationships. The ‘rocket jocks’
    (who had also hated the New Wave) insisted women
    couldn’t write real, ‘hard’ science fiction and
    probably shouldn’t even be reading it. Other men
    were more open in theory, but had trouble understanding
    the problem.

    Arthur C. Clarke, for example, had recently sent a
    letter to the editor of _Time_ magazine agreeing with
    astronaut Mike Collins. Collins had told _Time_ that
    women could never be in the space program, since in
    zero G a woman’s breasts would bounce and keep the men
    from concentrating. Clarke proudly claimed he had
    already predicted this ‘problem.’ In his novel
    _Rendezvous with Rama_ he had written, ‘Some women,
    Commander Norton had decided long ago, should not
    be allowed aboard ship: weightlessness did things
    to their breasts that were too damn distracting.’
    When Joanna Russ tried privately to explain why this
    was insulting, Clarke, responding publicly in the
    SFWA newsletter, asked why Commander Norton shouldn’t
    be attracted to women — didn’t Russ want him to be?
    He added that though some of his best friends
    were women, the level of discourse of the ‘women’s
    libbers’ clearly wasn’t helping their cause.

    The whole exchange appeared in the _SFWA Forum_ in
    February and March 1975. It drew a storm of comment
    from all directions, most of it expressive of how
    new feminism was to most men and how automatically
    many reacted by kicking slush. The newsletter’s
    editor, Ted Cogswell, illustrated an issue with
    pictures of naked women — intended, he said, as a
    joke. [SF author] Suzy Charnas informed him that
    this kind of ‘joke’ was aggression disguised as
    humor. Some of the letters, from men and women,
    were open and intelligent, but even the more reasonable
    men often reduced the argument to the sexual or
    the physical, as if all sexism was about was, as
    one man put it, the shape of a person’s plumbing.”

  4. #4 Starmaker
    July 25, 2012

    >Another called Tereshkova’s flight “a publicity stunt.”

    That’s what it actually was to the Soviets. Korolev was a giant asshole (exact quote: “C*nts have no place in space”). Glushko vocally disagreed (“Women are suited to space flights just as well, and perhaps better, than men”) but couldn’t do anything.

  5. #5 Terri McCormick
    July 25, 2012

    Appalling, once again proving that most men can only think with one head, and not the one with a brain in it. My estimation of Arthur Clarke and Mike Collins has plummeted. And, PZ, you have not paid attention if you never even heard of the Women in Space program!
    Damn, we still have a lot of work to do…

  6. #6 Joseph Nebus
    July 26, 2012

    Well, there’s also that there wasn’t a “Women In Space Program”, at least not as anything NASA was doing or thinking about. It was a set of privately-funded medical screenings paralleling what was going on for actual astronauts from everyone’s favorite recurring menace in _The Right Stuff_, the Lovelace clinic.

    Space historian James Oberg, writing for The Space Review, goes over various ways that the “Mercury 13” story is really a lot of nothing; but, ultimately, the women given medical screening weren’t astronauts, weren’t going to be astronauts, and would not have been astronauts even if they had been male given the qualifications required at the time.

    It’s unfair, it’s unjust, that women were not able to have the jet experience, test pilot experience, or similar prerequisites. But it isn’t as though these women were pulled out of Friendship 7 during the final countdown so a he-man could do it.

  7. #7 Singe
    Mountain View
    July 26, 2012

    I’d like to note something I learned at a NASA-related conference I attended recently (last December)…

    The first human-powered helicopter, EVER, was powered by a girl at the university of Maryland. She had the right combination of being strong enough and light enough to power it and fly in it, though it wasn’t very high or very long (noting the male contenders were slightly stronger but way too heavy, by the way). Weight has always been very important in spaceflight, which is why I’d like to note it.

  8. #8 Mimmoth
    July 26, 2012

    “It’s unfair, it’s unjust, that women were not able to have the jet experience, test pilot experience, or similar prerequisites.”

    Yes. Yes, it is. Unfair and unjust in ways I would not be inclined to juxtapose with “a lot of nothing,” Whether or not the Mercury 13 ever had a snowballs chance in hell of being treated fairly.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.