They Never Became Astronauts: The Story of the Mercury 13

mercury 13
7 Members of Mercury 13 in 1995: (from left): Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. Several have since passed away. NASA

Before Sally Ride, There Were "First lady Astronaut Trainees"

In the early 1960s, when the first groups of astronauts were selected, NASA didn't think to look at the qualified female pilots who were available. That changed when Dr. William Randolph "Randy" Lovelace II he invited pilot Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb to undergo the physical fitness testing regimen that he had helped to develop to select the original U.S. astronauts, the "Mercury Seven." After becoming the first American woman to pass those tests, Jerrie Cobb and Doctor Lovelace publicly announced her test results at a 1960 conference in Stockholm, and recruited more women to take the tests.

Cobb and Lovelace were assisted in their efforts by Jacqueline Cochran, who was a famous American aviatrix and an old friend of Lovelace's. She even volunteered to pay for the testing expenses. By the fall of 1961, a total of 25 women, ranging in age from 23 to 41, went to the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They underwent four days of testing, doing the same physical and psychological tests as the original Mercury Seven had. While some had learned of the examinations by word of mouth, many were recruited through the Ninety-Nines, a women pilot's organization.

A few of the women took additional tests. Jerrie Cobb, Rhea Hurrle, and Wally Funk went to Oklahoma City for an isolation tank test. Jerrie and Wally also experienced a high-altitude chamber test and the Martin-Baker seat ejection test. Because of other family and job commitments, not all of the women were asked to take these tests.

Out of the original 25 applicants, 13 were chosen for further testing at the Naval Aviation center in Pensacola, FL. The finalists were dubbed the First Lady Astronaut Trainees, and eventually, the Mercury 13. They were:

  • Jerrie Cobb
  • Mary Wallace "Wally" Funk
  • Irene Leverton
  • Myrtle "K" Cagle
  • Janey Hart (now deceased)
  • Gene Nora Stombough [Jessen]
  • Jerri Sloan Now deceased)
  • Rhea Hurrle [Woltman]
  • Sarah Gorelick [Ratley]
  • Bernice "B" Trimble Steadman (now deceased)
  • Jan Dietrich (now deceased)
  • Marion Dietrich (now deceased)
  • Jean Hixson (now deceased)

High Hopes, Dashed Expectations

Expecting the next round of tests to be the first step in training which could conceivably allow them to become astronaut trainees, several of the women quit their jobs in order to be able to go. Shortly before they were scheduled to report, the women received telegrams canceling the Pensacola testing. Without an official NASA request to run the tests, the Navy would not allow the use of their facilities.

Jerrie Cobb (the first woman to qualify) and Janey Hart (the forty-one year old mother who was also married to U.S. Senator Philip Hart of Michigan) campaigned in Washington to have the program continue. They contacted President Kennedy and vice-president Johnson. They attended hearings chaired by Representative Victor Anfuso and testified on behalf of the women. Unfortunately, Jackie Cochran, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, and George Low all testified that including women in the Mercury Project or creating a special program for them would be a detriment to the space program.

NASA required all astronauts to be jet test pilots and have engineering degrees. Since no women could meet these requirements, no women qualified to become astronauts. The Subcommittee expressed sympathy, but did not rule on the question.

Nevertheless, They Persisted and Women Went to Space

On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. Clare Booth Luce published an article about the Mercury 13 in Life magazine criticizing NASA for not achieving this first. Tereshkova's launch and the Luce article renewed media attention to women in space. Jerrie Cobb made another push to revive the women's testing. It failed. It took 15 years before the next U.S. women were selected to go to space, and the Soviets didn't fly another female for nearly 20 years after Tereshkova's flight.

In 1978, six women were chosen as astronaut candidates by NASA: Rhea Seddon, Kathryn Sullivan, Judith Resnik, Sally Ride, Anna Fisher and Shannon Lucid. On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. On February 3, 1995, Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle. At her invitation, eight of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees attended her launch. On July 23, 1999, Collins also became the first woman Shuttle Commander.  

Today women routinely fly to space, fulfilling the promise of the first women to train as astronauts. As time passes, the Mercury 13 trainees are passing on, but their dream lives on in the women who live and work and space for NASA and space agencies in Russia, China, and Europe. 

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.

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Greene, Nick. "They Never Became Astronauts: The Story of the Mercury 13." ThoughtCo, Aug. 12, 2017, thoughtco.com/mercury-13-first-lady-astronaut-trainees-3073474. Greene, Nick. (2017, August 12). They Never Became Astronauts: The Story of the Mercury 13. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/mercury-13-first-lady-astronaut-trainees-3073474 Greene, Nick. "They Never Became Astronauts: The Story of the Mercury 13." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/mercury-13-first-lady-astronaut-trainees-3073474 (accessed January 19, 2018).