It would take a historic moment, 60 years in the making, to fix the problem as the first ever all-women spacewalk team of astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir would journey outside the space station to make repairs. It would take the two former Girl Scouts turned astronauts seven hours in space to replace the defective unit.
Women have walked in space before, 15 to be exact with Meir being the 15th, but always as part of a mixed team with men. This was the first women-only operation.
A BOYS’ CLUB
Things were quite different back in 1959, when NASA announced the Mercury 7 astronauts. The first Americans to fly into space would be all military test pilots and they would all be men.
First, they were military test pilots because even though NASA was a civilian agency, it could be dealing with classified technology, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower wanted people with security clearance. This would be changed with the next nine astronauts who were selected under President John F. Kennedy.
Second, they were to be men because many felt that only men could meet the physical challenges of space flight.
Enter the Mercury 13 and Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb.
NASA scientist and flight surgeon Dr. Randy Lovelace, who conducted the official Mercury program physical, began to wonder if women could meet the requirements of space flight. He even thought women might be better for space flight because they were smaller, lighter and consume fewer resources.
Then in September 1959, Lovelace had a chance meeting on a beach with Cobb.
Cobb was a woman pilot of international reputation. She was teaching men to fly before she was 20, and by age 21 she was delivering military fighters and four-engine bombers around the world. She had accumulated 7,000 hours of flight time, held three world records and was the first woman to fly in the Paris Air Show. She was also awarded the Amelia Earhart Gold Medal of Achievement.
Lovelace asked Cobb if she would like to train for space. Without hesitation she said yes. In February 1960, 25 First Lady Astronaut Trainees, or FLATs, with Cobb being the first, would begin the exact same three-phase testing that the Mercury 7 men went through.
Thirteen of the FLATs made it through the first phase, later earning the name the Mercury 13, and continued on to phase two and phase three where the group would undergo isolation tank tests, psychological evaluations and at one point even had their middle ear frozen to test their response. They did all the same tests that John Glenn, Alan Shepard and the rest of the Mercury 7 men did.
Those passing the tests would advance to Pensacola, Florida, to the Naval School of Aviation Medicine for additional test and training, including jets. Cobb passed the third phase of testing, scoring better than the men in many categories, and headed to Florida. But before the rest of the group reported to Pensacola the program was blocked.
The FLATs program was privately funded and not an official NASA program. Without an official NASA request to run the tests, the U.S. Navy would not allow the use of its facilities for an unofficial project.
NASA was grateful for the data but wouldn’t approve the additional tests or training for the women.
TESTIFYING BEFORE THE HOUSE
Cobb and some of the other women went to Washington to try and get NASA to change its mind.
Cobb wrote to President Kennedy and she and Janey Hart, another one of the FLATs, visited Vice President Lyndon Johnson to lobby for the chance to go into space.
Finally, on July 17, the two testified in front of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics. The next day NASA’s representatives testified, among them American’s first astronaut to orbit the earth, John Glenn.
The representatives pointed out that under NASA’s selection criteria the women did not qualify because all astronauts had to be graduates of military jet test piloting programs and have engineering degrees. Things that were not readily open to women at the time.
During the testimony Glenn said, “Men fly the planes and fight the wars. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.”
“STOP THIS NOW”
After the hearings a letter was drafted to NASA Administrator James Webb questioning the program’s requirements and placed on the desk of Vice President Johnson for his signature. Johnson did not sign the letter. Instead he wrote in big letters across the bottom “Let’s stop this now.”
The vice president’s actions killed any hope that the Mercury 13 would ever go into space.
Almost a year later, on June 16, 1963, NASA, John Glenn and Vice President Johnson all had to eat their words and their actions as Russia sent Valentina Tereshkova into orbit as the first woman in space.
Some time later, Tereshkova met Cobb and told her that she was her role model and said, “We always figured you would be first. What happened?”
After the moon landings in the late ’60s and early ’70s there was a pause in space flights while the shuttle was developed. During this time attitudes toward women changed.
In 1978, NASA’s Astronaut Group 8 begin training America’s first woman astronaut, Sally Ride. Ride rode into space on the Space Shuttle Challenger, the seventh shuttle mission, on June 18, 1983, and would go to space again on Challenger in 1984. She was scheduled for a third mission when the Challenger disaster occurred. Ride was instead appointed to the commission that investigated the explosion.
THE WOMEN MARCH IN
Ride’s success opened the door wide for women in space, and they marched in.
There would be many more firsts. Kathryn Sullivan would be the first American woman to walk in space on Oct. 11, 1984. Shannon Lucid would be the first American woman to fly into space five times. Mae Jemison would be the first African-American woman in space. Peggy Whitson would spend a cumulative total of 665 days in space and be the first woman to command the International Space Station.
Sadly, four women have died during space missions; Judith Resnik and Christa McAuliffe died in the Challenger disaster, and Kalpana Chawla and Laurel B. Clark died in the Columbia disaster.
In 1976, the U.S. Air Force allowed women to enter flight training for jets, and in that first class was Eileen Collins. Collins would later join NASA and become the first female shuttle pilot and later a shuttle commander. She would fly into space four times starting on Feb. 3, 1995, and ending on July 26, 2005.
Collins invited the women of the Mercury 13 as her guests to see her first flight. In a press conference before she piloted Shuttle Discovery to the Mir Space Station, she recognized the women by pointing to them and saying, “If it were not for the Mercury 13, I would not be here today.”
Now there will be one small step for a woman, one giant leap for womankind. NASA has announced the first woman to walk on the moon is scheduled for 2024. Who will it be?
Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]