In the 1950s, before any American had been to space, women were considered good potential candidates for spaceflight. As NASA’s first, all-male astronaut class was undergoing rigorous medical and physiological tests to make sure they could survive the shakes and sounds of a rocket launch, Randolph Lovelace, the doctor in charge of the examinations, suspected women might do as well or even better than the men. After all, women are, on average, lighter and smaller than men, and require less oxygen. So he started testing female pilots at his clinic in New Mexico in 1960, subjecting them to the same tests the male candidates faced. Thirteen of 19 women passed the tests, compared to 18 of 32 men. The women did particularly better than the men in isolation tests.
Lovelace may sound progressive for his time, but his reasoning for including women wasn’t. Lovelace imagined a future full of space stations circling Earth, carrying people busy at work. “He was thinking that if you’re going to have dozens of people on space stations, then you’re going to need secretaries, you’re going to need telephone operators, you’re going to need lab assistants—and that means you need women,” says Margaret Weitekamp, a curator in the space history department at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum and the author of Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program. “So he’s thinking about the women for very much traditional, pink-collared, gendered jobs.”
Despite the promise of Lovelace’s tests, none of the participants ended up flying, and women would wait two more decades before getting their chance to blast off into space. After the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, the space race that ensued became another proxy battle in the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, turning astronauts into de facto soldiers. Men, as they had always done, would go to the front lines. Women, the thinking went, were to be protected and kept away from the battlefield, even if it was inside a cramped capsule.
“The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order,” said John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, at a 1962 congressional hearing on gender discrimination at NASA, convened after much door-knocking in Washington by one of the members of Lovelace’s program, Jerrie Cobb. When the hearing took place, hiring discrimination on the basis of gender was two years away from being prohibited by law.
Some critics back then wondered how women could handle menstruation in microgravity, and whether exposure to radiation would affect fertility. The one and only report to come out of Lovelace’s program, published in 1964, noted that, although many women had passed strenuous testing, there were concerns about “the potential for the menstrual cycle to alter performance during space flight.” Spoiler: it doesn’t.