The Women Who Would Have Been Sally Ride

The truth is: the sexism of the day overwhelmed the science of the day.


Jerrie Cobb undergoing physiological testing (NASA).

Whenever the Soviets beat us to a milestone in space, it caused a moral-scientific panic in the United States. They got a satellite up there first in 1957, sparking "Sputnik Mania." Their space program was the first to put a man in space in 1961, sending the American effort to redouble its efforts. "We look back now [at Gagarin's flight] and say, 'Oh, that was just a small incident,' but in those days there were serious writings about the future of communism around the world, whether it was going to be a dominant factor," astronaut John Glenn recalled. "We took this very seriously -- the administration, President Kennedy and President Eisenhower after he came around to believe in the importance of it. At the time, we looked at this as representing our country in the Cold War."

So, one might have expected great movement when Valentina Tereshkova left the Earth's atmosphere on June 16, 1963 to become the first woman in space. After all, Tereshkova spent three days in space, completed 48 orbits around Earth, and logged more time in orbit than all the Americans (three) who had been in space to that point. She'd proven that a woman was physically capable of withstanding the rigors of spaceflight. Surely, the Americans would rush to get a woman into space! Rosie the Riveter, perhaps, dusting herself off after her stint as a factory laborer in the successful war effort?

But no, there was no Tereshkova moment. 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."

It would be another 20 years before Sally Ride, who died yesterday at the age of 61, would become the first American woman in space. 

The truth is: the sexism of the day overwhelmed the science of the day. Because NASA already knew that women were capable of spaceflight, and Tereshkova's success confirmed that. A later space-agency review of possible physiological problems in spaceflight admitted that women appeared to be great candidates for flight.

"During training, the [Soviet] women seemed to adapt faster to weightlessness than the men, and there was no difference between the sexes concerning the effects of prolonged sensory deprivation," the report noted (PDF), "although takeoff and landing stress seems to be worse in the women during ovulation, Phases of the menstrual cycle under weightless conditions are not significantly important."

But, the report went on to say, "Information regarding women during periods of stress is scanty. This lack, plus previously mentioned problems, will make it difficult for a woman to be a member of the first long-duration space missions. However, it is just as unlikely to think that women cannot adapt to space?"

There was no "information regarding women during periods of stress" because they had not been allowed to subject themselves to that stress. This sad twist was lost on the NASA planners, who just seemed to think it implausible that women could really serve as astronauts, though they do regularly now. "Initial exploration parties are historically composed of men, for various cultural and social reasons," the report concluded. "Once space exploration by men has been successfully accomplished, then women will follow."

Various cultural and social reasons indeed.

However, there was one job that the NASA planners thought a woman might be suited for:

The question of direct sexual release on a long-duration space mission must be considered... It is possible that a woman, qualified from a scientific viewpoint, might be persuaded to donate her time and energies for the sake of improving crew morale; however, such a situation might create interpersonal tensions far more dynamic than the sexual tensions it would release... Thus, it appears that methods involving sublimation are more practical than these more direct alternatives.

The word sublimation could have tipped you off that the NASA researchers were leaning heavily on Freud's largely discredited theories about psychology and the mind. If the space agency's people should shoulder some of the blame for the sexism that kept women out of orbit, the prevailing paradigms of the era sure made it easy.

The NASA review, which was published in 1971, also happens to ignore a privately funded and fascinating effort that proved that people with two X chromosomes would make great 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."


Jerrie Cobb undergoing physiological testing (NASA).

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