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Martha Ackmann

7 Martha Ackmann

Excerpts from The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight

Published in 2003

In 1959 seven astronauts were introduced to the United States as the future of space travel. Known as the Mercury 7, the men became instant heroes, and they went on to make significant contributions to the U.S. space program. At the time Americans did not know that thirteen women had also qualified for spaceflights, undergoing the same rigorous testing and preparations as their male counterparts. Although none of these women—now called the Mercury 13—ever had the opportunity to travel into space, their pioneering spirit paved the way for future women astronauts. Had the Mercury 13 not proved to those in power that women could succeed in the field of aeronautics, Sally Ride (1951–), the first American woman to travel in space, may never have left the ground.

In 1958 the United States established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which integrated U.S. space research agencies and started an astronaut training program. The formation of NASA was a direct response to Sputnik 1, an artificial satellite (a man-made device that orbits Earth) that the former Soviet Union had launched the previous year (see First Satellite entry). This event sent shock waves through American society, because at the time the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a political standoff known as the Cold War (1945–91). Not only were the two superpowers involved in an arms race for military superiority but they were also competing for dominance in space. Sputnik 1 was a sign that the Soviet Union was winning the space race.

Determined to move ahead of the Soviets, NASA developed a manned space flight program with the goal of sending the first person into Earth orbit. According to the plan, the program would progress in three stages: Project Mercury, Project Gemini, and Project Apollo. Project Mercury developed the basic technology for manned space flight and investigated a human's ability to survive and perform in space. Project Gemini provided astronauts with experience in returning to Earth from space as well as in successfully linking space vehicles and "walking" in space. Integrating the information and experience gained from Mercury and Gemini, Project Apollo would land a person safely on the Moon.

NASA aggressively promoted Project Mercury, seeking a pool of applicants from whom a few would be selected to train as the first U.S. astronauts. NASA administrator T. Keith Glennan (1905–1995) convinced President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61) that military jet test pilots would be the most qualified astronauts, so experience as a military pilot became the primary requirement. In April 1959, after applicants had been screened and tested, Glennan presented seven astronaut candidates—all males and all military test pilots—to the American public. Called the "Mercury 7," they were M. Scott Carpenter (1925–), L. Gordon Cooper Jr. (1927–), John Glenn (1921–), Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom (1926–1967), Walter Schirra Jr. (1923–), Alan Shepard Jr. (1923–1998), and Donald K. "Deke" Slayton (1924–1993).

At the time it was difficult for women to break out of the traditional roles assigned to them. Therefore, when the United States entered into the space race, women were largely overlooked as potential astronauts. Yet two American men, Dr. Robert Lovelace (1929–) and Air Force Brigadier General Donald Flickinger (1907–1997), thought the future of space travel might lie in the hands of women. Lovelace had designed the intense medical tests required for astronaut candidates, and Flickinger was a central figure in the development of the American space program. Both wondered whether women, if given the opportunity, could handle the rigorous demands of space travel. But Lovelace and Flickinger were in the distinct minority. Knowing that NASA would never allow women to even be tested as potential astronauts, the doctor and the general decided to conduct the tests in secret. In The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight author Martha Ackmann tells the story of their testing program, which played an important role in the history of American space exploration.

Lovelace and Flickinger chose one woman to undergo the same seventy-five tests that had been given to the male astronauts. The tests evaluated heart rate, lung capacity, loneliness level, pain level, noise tolerance, sensory deprivation, and spinning, tilting, and dropping into water tanks to measure resistance to vertigo (dizziness). In February 1960, Jerrie Cobb (1931–), the first female pilot of an Aero Commander plane, reported to the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to face the challenge. Regarded as an excellent pilot, Cobb had logged over ten thousand flight hours—twice as many as Mercury 7 astronaut John Glenn, who became the first American to orbit Earth. Cobb's reputation was deserved: She did very well in the first series of tests, known as phase one, so well in fact that she was immediately sent to the Naval School of Aviation in Pensacola, Florida, to begin phase-two testing. NASA reluctantly agreed to allow Cobb to enter this stage of astronaut training.

Excited about Cobb's test results and progress, Lovelace contacted his friend Jackie Cochran (c. 1906–1980), a famous female pilot, who agreed to provide the funding necessary for additional women to take the tests. Initially, all applicants were required to be under the age of thirty-five, be in good physical condition, have a college degree, to hold pilot's licenses (of commercial rating or better), and have over two thousand hours of flight time. Twenty-five women were selected, and twelve had passed the tests by the summer of 1961. They swore themselves to secrecy, since the American public was lukewarm, at best, regarding female astronauts. The women were: Rhea Allison Woltman (1928–), Jane "Janey"


Briggs Hart (1920–), Mary Wallace "Wally" Funk (1938–), Jean Hixson (1921–1962), Myrtle "K" Cagle (1922–), Irene Leverton (1924–), Sarah Lee Gorelick Ratley (1931–), twin sisters Jan (1924–) and Marion Dietrich (1924–1974), Gene Nora Stumbough Jessen (1934–), Bernice "B" Steadman (1923–), and Jerry Sloan Truhill (1928–).

All the women completed phase-one testing. Cobb, Funk, and Woltman passed phase two, and Cobb and Funk completed phase three, which means that they achieved equal status with their male counterparts, the Mercury 7. Without warning or official explanation, NASA suspended the testing program in July 1961, even though the Mercury 13 had achieved excellent results on the tests and had at times performed even better than their male counterparts. Lovelace had presented evidence that women were less likely to suffer heart attacks and suffered fewer effects from cold, heat, loneliness, noise, and pain. Furthermore, because most women weigh less than men, it was much less expensive to send them into space, because less rocket power was required to put the ship into orbit.

Things to remember while reading excerpts from The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight:

  • The Mercury 13 were unable to get any answers from NASA about the abrupt decision to cancel the testing program. Frustrated by the stonewalling, Janey Hart and Jerrie Cobb made an appointment to meet with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) and ask him to intervene on their behalf. Johnson had been a major force in establishing the space agency, so his word would carry considerable weight. This was the first time Hart and Cobb had ever met. They had originally proposed that all the members of the Mercury 13 convene to discuss strategy and objectives, but that plan did not work out. Consequently, when Hart and Cobb prepared to talk with Johnson, they did so without any input from the other members.
  • The United States had received reliable intelligence that the Soviet Union was considering sending a female astronaut into space. The members of the Mercury 13 were hopeful that this fact could be used to their advantage and that the vice president would understand the importance of beating the Soviets to the punch.
  • In the early 1960s, women were still regarded as incapable of handling the same tasks and pressures as men. The unwillingness of NASA to consider scientific evidence reflects this attitude. Instead of refuting the womens' points with scientific research, the opponents of the program relied upon unsound information and false myths.

Excerpts from The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight

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What happened next …

Supporters of the Mercury 13 protested NASA's decision and pressured the U.S. Congress to hold hearings on discrimination against women in the space program. In July 1962, a Congressional subcommittee met to discuss the reinstatement of the training program. The representatives of NASA claimed that the women were ineligible to become astronauts because they had not gone through the military jet-pilot training program at Edwards Air Force base in California. None of the women had completed this program because women were not eligible for jet-pilot training, a ban that remained in effect until 1973. The truth was that male military officers, both in the armed forces and at NASA, did not want women to fly in space: Such a development would reflect negatively on the traditional image of airmen as strong, brave risk-takers. With no one willing to help the women, Mercury 13 disbanded without


a single member being given the chance to serve as an astronaut. They returned to active private lives, remaining in the aviation field as commercial pilots, flight instructors, owners of aviation-related businesses, air-race competitors, and flying hobbyists.

Did you know …

  • In 1963, a year after the Mercury 13 disbanded, the Soviet Union sent female cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova (1937–) into space. The United States did not send a woman into space until twenty years later, when Sally Ride became the first female American to travel in space.
  • In 1995 ten of the Mercury 13 members, some meeting for the first time, gathered at Cape Canaveral, Florida. They were there to witness the launch of Eileen Collins (1956–), the first American woman pilot astronaut to travel in space. Before entering the space shuttle Discovery, Collins paid tribute to the Mercury 13 pioneers, saying, "They gave us [women astronauts] a history."
  • Although most of the Mercury 13 were disappointed about NASA's decision to cancel the testing program, they did not make any further efforts to pursue a career in space-flight. Cobb and Funk were the exceptions: Hoping to fly in space one day, both stayed physically fit and were still flying airplanes as they approached the age of seventy. In 1998, when John Glenn took his second flight at age seventy-six, Cobb and her supporters started a movement to pressure NASA to give her a mission in space. Once again, NASA ignored her. In 2001 Funk signed a contract with a civilian space launch company, Interorbital Systems, to take a suborbital flight. Her trip had been delayed several times by 2004, but she remained optimistic about finally traveling in space.

Consider the following …

  • If Vice President Johnson had intervened on the behalf of the Mercury 13, do you think any of them would have been allowed to travel to space? Why or why not?
  • Glenn returned to space at the age of seventy-six. Do you think NASA should extend an invitation to Cobb, who is still an active pilot at the age of eighty-five?

For More Information

Books

Ackmann, Martha. The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight. New York: Random House, 2003.

Cobb, Jerrie. Jerrie Cobb, Solo Pilot. Sun City, FL: Jerrie Cobb Foundation, 1997.

Nolen, Stephanie. Promised the Moon: The Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003.

Periodicals

"'Mercury 13' Project Helped Pave Way for Female Astronauts." Government CustomWire (April 8, 2004).

"Star Struck." Weekly Reader—Senior (April 2, 2004): pp. 2–3.

"Stars in Their Eyes." People (July 7, 2003): pp. 111–14.

Web Sites

Burbank, Sam. "Mercury 13's Wally Funk Fights for Her Place in Space." NationalGeographic.com.http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/07/0709_030709_tvspacewoman.html (accessed on July 19, 2004).

DeFrange, Ann. "State-Born Aviatrix Yearns for Space. 2nd Astronaut Bid Supported." The Sunday Oklahoman (May 17, 1998): pp. 1–2; http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~swokla/family/jerricobb.html (accessed on July 19, 2004).

Funk, Wally. The Mercury 13 Story.www.ninety-nines.org/mercury.html (accessed on July 19, 2004).

"Mercury 13—The Women of the Mercury Era." http://www.mercury13.com/ (accessed on July 19, 2004).

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