No place in space: ‘The Mercury 13’ author tells how female pilots were denied shot at being astronauts

  • Author Martha Ackmann wrote the 2004 book, “The Mercury 13.” SUBMITTED PHOTO

For the Gazette
Published: 7/20/2019 2:12:43 PM

In the middle of the 20th century, almost every father on Martha Ackmann’s childhood street in St. Louis, Missouri, worked for McDonnell Aircraft Corp., the company that built the space capsule that carried John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, into space.

“My father was a cartographer for the Department of Defense,” Ackmann said. “He designed maps that would help with the Apollo flights, and he would always bring me maps of the moon.”

Ackmann credits her childhood — and a local newspaper article mentioning pilot Jerrie Cobb — for inspiring her 2004 book “The Mercury 13,” titled after the group of 13 female pilots that Cobb unofficially led. Although they passed the same tests male astronauts took and sometimes outperformed those men, NASA barred the female pilots from completing the final tests, and Congress effectively banned women from becoming astronauts at all. 

The Mercury 13 was formed in the early 1960s because Randy Lovelace, chairman of the NASA Special Advisory Committee on Life Science, wondered whether women could pass the tests needed to become an astronaut. He recruited Cobb to take these tests at his private research institute. After she passed, Lovelace enlisted Cobb’s help to find 25 of the best female pilots to also take the tests. Twelve passed, and with Cobb, they made up The Mercury 13. 

For a while, Ackmann said, NASA basically looked the other way when it came to Lovelace’s project, which he conducted out of the public eye. But when the U.S. Navy asked NASA for permission for the Mercury 13 to use their equipment for the final space simulation tests, NASA said no and put a stop to Lovelace’s project.

After this happened, Cobb and Janey Hart, another member of the Mercury 13, flew to Washington, D.C. and visited Vice President Lyndon Johnson and asked him to appeal that Lovelace’s project continue.

“He met with them, did the whole song and dance,” Ackmann said. “But they didn’t know that in his desk, there was a memo to NASA that said, ‘Let’s stop this now.’”

In 1962, Congress held a hearing to address the program, during which Cobb, Hart and Glenn testified.

“Glenn said what became a really famous quote for him during that hearing,” Ackmann said. “He said, ‘The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes ... That women are not in this field is just a fact of our social order.’” Glenn also said NASA couldn’t afford both a program to put women in space and the lunar landing program.

After the hearing, Congress mandated that all astronauts had to first be military jet pilots, effectively barring women from becoming astronauts.

None of the Mercury 13 ended up going to space. Shortly after the congressional hearing, Hart helped found the National Organization for Women. Cobb became a missionary pilot in South America, transporting medicine, food and clothing to people in remote areas. She won the Nobel Peace Prize for this work in 1981.

“She learned about the moon landing by radio, while she was in the Amazon,” Ackmann said. “The story goes that she was so happy, she grounded the plane and started dancing on its wings.”

Ackmann’s own feelings about the moon landing haven’t changed since she first watched it with her family in her brother’s bedroom on his small portable television.

“The wonder is still there,” she said Thursday. “I live out in Leverett, where there’s not much ambient light. I get alerts from NASA about when the International Space Station is going to pass over us. It’s going to arrive around 9 at night tonight, and I’ll be out there, looking at it. Space continues to be a source of wonder for me. I’m still filled with awe and amazement.”

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