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Mercury 13 women at UW Oshkosh
Eight surviving members of the “Mercury 13” women who underwent medical tests as a relude to potential astronaut training participate in a forum at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh on May 11. (credit: Dylan Stolley/UW Oshkosh)

The Mercury 13: setting the story straight

“Some days you can control the news and some days you can’t” is an old article of conventional wisdom that bit with a vengeance on May 12 in a major space history related story with significant contemporary political implications. A political ceremony at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh was supposed to highlight past sexist injustices towards fully-qualified would-be women astronauts by the US space program. Quite by accident, it was the same day that videos were released in Florida of a very creepy looking woman astronaut stalking a rival through an Orlando airport several months ago, with mayhem on her mind and a bizarre collection of tools and weapons in her duffle bag. Other press reports suggested her defense attorney was considering a “temporary insanity” defense.

The two events—the early-1960’s failure of efforts to get women enrolled in NASA’s astronaut corps and the sad 2007 one-time incident involving a single deeply-troubled NASA woman astronaut—are totally unrelated, except on the calendar. There is a further difference. The current story involves real people with human strengths and weaknesses, while the press reports about the decades-old “exclusion of women from space” is based on total media credulity towards intentionally misleading press releases and websites, with the result that the real women and their real achievements are obscured by propaganda screeds designed to appeal to emotion and resentment.

Reality check

Just look at the national television coverage on the day of the university ceremony, Saturday May 12. Michelle Miller’s piece on the CBS News national broadcast lauded the “aviation pioneers” who “had the right stuff at the wrong time”, women she described as “train[ing] secretly to become astronauts at the dawn of the space race.” But it was not to be. “Sexism and prejudice scrubbed their mission and their dreams,” Miller proclaimed. Speakers at the university ceremony called upon the Democratically-controlled Congress to vote the women a “gold medal” to undo the injustice.

The CBS affiliate in Oshkosh, WFRV, carried a written story that elaborated: “The Mercury 13 were thirteen women pilots who secretly trained to become astronauts in the early 1960s. They were never allowed to travel in space because they were women.”

The result of the Mercury 13 misrepresentation is that the real women and their real achievements are obscured by propaganda screeds designed to appeal to emotion and resentment.

ABC News correspondent Natalie Arnold, reporting for WBAY-TV in Green Bay, Wisconsin, was even blunter, in a piece titled “UW-Oshkosh Recognizes Secret History of the Mercury Women”. According to Ms. Arnold, “The Mercury 13 are the women our country didn’t want anyone to know about.” Everything had been completed, she said, but “just as the women were successfully completing their training, the politicians pulled the plug.”

The blame, Ms. Arnold’s piece explained with a quote from one of the women, was on Vice President Lyndon Johnson: “He was from Texas, [a] chauvinist pig,” said Jerri Sloan Truhill with a laugh.

In the Chicago Tribune, reporter Michelle Keller, under the headline “College honors 13 denied shot at stars” (elsewhere on the Internet the story was headlined “13 Trained To Become Project Mercury Astronauts”), described the medical screening that the women passed. But plans to continue testing at a US Navy base were abruptly cancelled: “The pilots were told that NASA was discontinuing the women’s program.”

The official documentation from UW-Oshkosh supported these accusations. The official honorary PhD commendations congratulate each woman as “a member of the Mercury 13 astronaut training program.”

The university’s “Mercury 13” program page was clearly the source of the news media accounts. “In the early days of the Space Race, 25 women were asked to train in secret as astronauts,” the page stated. “In summer of 1961, just before leaving for the next phase of training at the Naval Aviation Center in Pensacola, Fla., the women received telegrams telling them not to come. Due to the prejudices of the times, the project was cancelled.”

A reality check is needed here, because none was provided in any of the press coverage or at the university’s website. The subject is actually rather well documented, as a diligent Internet search quickly reveals.

Truth #1: However impressive may have been the flight experience of the women undergoing the medical testing in 1960–1961, no white male with similar qualifications would ever have gotten a second glance by the NASA astronaut screening process. UW-Oshkosh and the press reports conceal this by equating all “flight experience” as of equivalent value for future astronaut candidates—small aircraft, commercial transport, jet transport, and even supersonic single-seat jet fighter—all are counted as of equal value.

Truth #2: There was no NASA program to even investigate whether women could pass the preliminary screening processes for astronaut selection. The activity was a private one sponsored by a doctor who was an independent consultant to NASA on astronaut selection.

Truth #3: There never was any training: all the activities involved medical screening.

Truth #4: The project ended after the investigator, Dr. Lovelace, had scheduled some screening time at the US Navy’s Pensacola flight training center and the Navy asked him for a charge number from the government sponsor of the project. He stalled all he could—there was no such sponsor—and the frustrated but still willing naval doctors finally called NASA to find out what was going on. When they found out that neither NASA nor any other government customer was sponsoring the tests, they told Lovelace that he had to pay or cancel. He cancelled his reservation. But there was no “program” that got “cancelled”, because there never had been any program to begin with.

Truth #5: There was no significant secrecy attached to any of activities, and no secrecy at all within a few months. The women’s activities were described in depth in contemporary press accounts and then in Congressional testimony.

All of these historical facts are easy to document and verify, but not a single journalist or academic shows any signs of ever doing so. Instead, they just accepted all of the assertions and cultural and social accusations of the university’s website and one particular book.

Although press reports quote a communications professor as claiming she assigned the book to her freshman class, it turns out that the university’s website states that a university panel had assigned the book to the entire freshman class. On a program called “The Common Intellectual Experience”, the university directed all incoming students to read the book, The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight by Holyoke University Department of Women’s Studies professor Martha Ackmann.

There was no “program” that got “cancelled”, because there never had been any program to begin with.

As described on the program’s website, “These women, among the most accomplished female pilots in the world at the time, went through many of the same excruciating and challenging tests experienced by NASA’s original seven astronauts. That all passed all tests, often with scores exceeding those achieved by the males selected to fly, carried absolutely no weight with an entrenched bureaucracy.” These were excerpts from a review of the book in Publisher’s Weeklys, written by Michael Zimmerman, former Dean of the College of Letters and Science at UW Oshkosh.)

Apparently by the university’s definition of “intellectual experience”, no critical thinking or independent research is included. Certainly, the journalists who rewrote the press releases never bothered to investigate the claims. The sole exception was the piece by the Associated Press, in which the reporter decided to check out the claims by calling a NASA press official at the Johnson Space Center in Houston—a center that had not even been in existence more than 45 years earlier when the events happened. The young media spokesman that the reporter talked with, quite understandably, had no information on the earlier events.

The NASA side of the story

But that’s not to say that NASA has never had anything to say about the story. Quite the contrary: there are several NASA Headquarters web pages that directly address the claims and provide refuting facts. Neither the Associated Press nor any other media report on this story even acknowledged the existence of that Internet-available information, much less made any use of it.

The NASA fact sheet (March 25, 2005) by Elaine Marconi, NASA KSC, correctly identifies study leader as Dr. W.R. Lovelace, who “helped develop the tests for NASA’s male astronauts”—but he was not a NASA employee. It states that “thirteen women were chosen for future training,” but by Lovelace’s team, not by NASA. And that statement implies that the women had up to that time received no training, just the prospect of future training with hoped-for NASA approval that never came. Further details are in an essay titled “Lovelace’s Woman in Space Program” (August 17, 2005) by NASA Chief Historian Steven Dick. There, the program is correctly described as “Lovelace’s”, and as a “short-lived, privately-funded project.” The US Air Force was initially interested, but provided no funding.

A little further checking might have uncovered a hard-hitting critique by Roger Launius, a space historian at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington and former NASA Chief Historian, of one of the recent “secret NASA women’s space program” books, Promised the Moon by Stephanie Nolen. He had this assessment of the controversy: “I am perplexed by the misrepresentation that is presented about [Nolen’s] book by the publisher in its advertising copy. There was never a NASA program, clandestine or otherwise, to bring women into the astronaut corps in the late 1950s and early 1960s. We can debate whether or not NASA leaders should have been open to appointing women astronauts, but the reality was that such an expansion of the astronaut corps never even crossed their minds at the time.”

Launius elaborated on the sequence of events: “Some [of the women] believed that the further testing represented the first step allowing them to become astronauts, although there was never any intent of this on the part of NASA officials. Indeed, Mercury project managers were unaware of these tests… When NASA officials learned about Lovelace’s attempts for further tests from the Navy, which Lovelace had asked to undertake these tests at Pensacola, they told Navy flight surgeons that this was not a NASA project. The Navy then canceled the tests.”

Male astronauts were not chosen based on their physical and mental qualities, they were at most screened (and selected out) if they fell short of these standards.

For perspective, Launius concluded, “In hindsight, one may criticize NASA leaders for not expanding the astronaut corps to women but there is no documentation whatsoever to suggest that there was even a consideration of doing so at the time. Perhaps John Glenn said it best when he remarked in recent years that the agency was reflective of its times. It is important to note, I think, that the first astronauts selected after the completion of Project Apollo—the class of 1978—did include women and other minorities, and therefore reflected the social changes experienced in the nation as a result of the women’s movement.”

Neither the comments of Steven Dick nor of Roger Launius receive the slightest exposure in any of the news media coverage.

The real right stuff

Press accounts and university speeches also repeat the mantra that the “secret tests” showed that the women had “the right stuff” and were just as qualified for spaceflight as the men who had been picked. This reflects gross ignorance of the history and the context of key decisions made at the time and validated by subsequent experience.

The fact that 13 women passed the same physical and mental tests as the Mercury male astronauts needs to be placed in historical perspective: the male astronauts were not chosen based on their physical and mental qualities, they were at most screened (and selected out) if they fell short of these standards.

In Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff, his opening chapter makes clear what test pilots thought of the qualities that they needed—and physiological parameters were not high on the list. “Nor was there a test to show whether or not a pilot had this righteous quality,” Wolfe wrote. “There was instead a seemingly infinite series of tests…”

In practice, this meant that the primary select-in criterion was a person who had already undergone repeated in-flight crises and emergencies requiring fast, careful, and rational constructive responses to the often never-before-encountered technological, mechanical, or environmental life-threatening challenges. This attitude is the “Right Stuff”, not some measurable physiological or psychological mark. It was considered then—and now—as a mental characteristic that could not be trained to, could not be reliably “added on” to a person who might or might not have it, but only ex post facto recognized when its presence was proven by the pilot’s survival through proper actions in a real life-threatening emergency.

The only known profession in 1959 that winnowed out its personnel—often by violent death (one quarter of naval aviators were expected to be killed in their careers, and the rate was higher for test pilots), often by broken nerves—against such hazards was military test piloting. Women were not admitted to that profession for cultural reasons that have since subsided. They and their female colleagues had not been “selected out” by anywhere near that fatality level and by the unavoidable emotional and intellectual responses to those horrifying prospects.

In late 1958, as NASA begin defining how to select astronauts, President Eisenhower directed that test pilots be the pool from which candidates were selected. The actual flight experience of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions in hindsight validated that standard. Because of the intimate integration of the pilot in the spacecraft’s control system (unlike the automated Soviet space vehicles that were less dependent on pilot intervention during malfunctions), astronauts on several occasions were able to safely complete missions that, on autopilot, would have led to failure and death.

That was the historical context, warts and all, of the decision to select astronauts exclusively from among test pilots initially, and supersonic jet pilots subsequently—a decision with the unintended consequence of ruling out the participation of women. To have done differently, on purpose, for symbolic reasons, would have been to add immeasurable (but arguably non-zero) hazards to a project that was generally considered already almost too hazardous to perform in any case. Whenever NASA has unconsciously relaxed safety standards, disasters have followed, from Apollo 1 to Challenger to Columbia.

The American vs. Russian experience

Avoiding confrontation with this rationale and blaming it all on male ego and sexism has denied the university’s intellectual community—and the news media’s readers—the useful opportunity to consider which of the two approaches to women’s access to spaceflight (the American or the Soviet one) produced the greatest long-lasting “good”. By what criteria should a national approach to overcome historical cultural exclusion and attain an “adequate” level of gender-independent access be deemed to have succeeded? This is a serious question worthy of significant national discussion and debate, but not a hint of the question appears in the recent coverage.

The Russian approach was probably, in the long run, a bad bargain for them, but as a stimulus to NASA, perhaps a good outcome for the US program of today and the roles that women play in it. That’s worth describing correctly, and celebrating.

The Russians went for the “stunts”, but the symbolism was hollow (even if widely successful among impressionable people), and the current reality for women in the Russian space program is grim. Today there have been dozens of American and other Western nationalities in space, but only three Russians ever: Valentina Tereshkova, plus a Soviet Air Force marshal’s daughter for a stunt “first woman’s spacewalk”, and the wife of a cosmonaut who became deputy director of the Russian spaceship factory. No other Russian women have flown, and there are few prospects for the future.

The Soviet choice to go with automation and ground control meant flying with very limited and persnickety vehicles on much less complicated and ambitious space missions: it took years to even get orbital rendezvous right, they never got to send men to the Moon, they never repaired or retrieved any free-flying satellite, and they never got to fly cosmonauts in any kind of shuttle craft. Their vehicles are still “robust and reliable” because their mission capabilities are simple and still so very limited.

But this approach meant they got to fly the first woman in space, a non-pilot textile factory worker and sports parachutist—probably, in the long run, a bad bargain for them, but as a stimulus to NASA, perhaps a good outcome for the US program of today and the roles that women play in it. That’s worth describing correctly, and celebrating.