The Women Who Would Have Been Sally Ride

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

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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."

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Jerrie Cobb undergoing physiological testing (NASA).

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 TheAtlantic.com. 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 Wired.com, 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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