The Women Who Would Have Been Sally Ride

For context, it's worth noting that women had a long and distinguished history in aviation, which was the field from which aerospace sprung, from Amelia Earhart on down. And two of the very best pilots in the nation were partially responsible for the creation of WISP.

Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb was a (as every article about her liked to remind readers) pretty lady who liked clothes. Here's a typical opener to a story about her from 1960:

"What is America's first lady Astronaut really like? She's a pretty 29-year-old miss who would probably take high heels along on her first space flight if given the chance ... She's a woman who would be mistaken for an average housewife on TV's 'What's My Line?' She's a girl who is "scared to death" to make a speech ... She's Jerrie Cobb, woman career pilot.

Cobb was deeply religious, perhaps even a mystic, who set all kinds of records and once said she'd like to go to the moon, even if she never came back, and that she just had an "urge to infinity." That's her in the photos above, undergoing two of the 87 physical feats that qualified astronauts for space flight. 

After she successfully completed the physiological tests that the (male) Mercury astronauts had, including surviving nine hours in a sensory deprivation tank, far longer than any man, the publicity about her began to pour in. Jacqueline Cochran, another pilot and businesswoman, decided to fund the testing and training of 19 other women, given that neither the Air Force nor NASA was willing to put up the money.

As the others tested, Cobb took the lead making her case to the public. She gave talks and wrote a book, even got herself named an advisor to NASA. Cobb received much support, but she had many, many detractors. Here's columnist Ruth Heimbucher rebuking her efforts with a little lighthearted clucking:

Now I am all for equality of the sexes job opportunities, suffrage, all that. I am even willing to stand on the bus while the men stay seated. But when it comes to exploring the fringes of the cosmos, then it's time to call a halt. By all means, leave the stratosphere to the men.

Why? Because men make fun of women for being bad drivers. Seriously, that's her answer. Actually, her friends had a few more:

"The hand that rocks the cradle should not steer a rocket," said one girl.

Another opined that "we should leave some realms exclusively to men, such as major league baseball, grilling steaks on the patio, the Saturday night dice games, chewing tobacco, submarine warfare. I say we should give them the air too."

Said a third, "A woman in space is a woman alone. Need I say more?" She needn't. We get the message.

While Heimbucher poked fun, twelve other women had completed the brutal tests administered by William Randolph "Randy" Lovelace at his clinic. Their names were: Wally Funk, Irene Leverton, Myrtle "K" Cagle, Jane B. Hart, Gene Nora Stumbough, Jerri Sloan, Rhea Hurrle, Sarah Gorelick, Bernice "B" Trimble Steadman, Jan Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, and Jean Hixson. Along with Jerrie Cobb, they became known as the Mercury 13.

For a short while, it seemed that their quest to fly might advance. In 1962, the women were scheduled to continue testing at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Pensacola, Florida, but NASA declined to support their visit. Without official backing, the Navy canceled the trip. Cobb tried to save the program, flying to Washington and testifying before Congress. But NASA officials, John Glenn among them, told the Congressmen that women couldn't be astronauts because they hadn't flown jets, which were only available to the military, which also barred women.

This argument apparently proved persuasive and the Mercury 13 never got another chance to make their case for space, even after Tereshkova's record-setting flight. Among the many hagiographies and biopics dedicated to America's astronauts, a single scholarly monograph has been written about these women. It's by Margaret Weitekamp and the title about sums it up, Right Stuff, Wrong Sex.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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