• Aeryn Avilla

Right Stuff, Wrong Time: The First Lady Astronaut Trainees

There have been numerous influential American female astronauts over the past four decades— Sally Ride, Mae Jemison, Eileen Collins, and Peggy Whitson to name a few. These women are the legacies of an often unrecognized and uncredited group known as the FLATs, or First Lady Astronaut Trainees, a privately-funded project evaluating the fitness of women pilots for astronaut candidacy. Since this cadre existed during NASA's Project Mercury (1958-1963), they are more commonly known today as the Mercury 13, despite having no affiliation with NASA. The group is sometimes historically referred to as the Woman in Space Program.


Five of the FLATs with toy rocket and space helmet (Netflix)

Jerrie Cobb with Mercury capsule mockup
Jerrie Cobb with Mercury capsule mockup (Smithsonian)

Dr. Randy Lovelace, a pioneer in aviation and aerospace medicine, was the chairman of NASA's Special Advisory Committee on Life Sciences during the earliest days of Project Mercury. The Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico conducted the medical exams of the original astronaut candidates. Lovelace and fellow flight surgeon Brigadier General Donald Flickinger invited Jerrie Cobb, a 29-year-old award-winning pilot, to undergo the same physical testing regiment the Mercury astronauts completed at the clinic. A full description of the physiological testing program can be found here. Lovelace announced Cobb's success at being the first woman to pass the exhaustive and painstakingly thorough exams at a conference in Stockholm, Sweden in 1960. By the end of the summer of 1961, eighteen other women pilots had traveled to the Lovelace Clinic and participated in the same physical exams. All were skilled aviators with commercial ratings and most were recruited through the Nintey-Nines: International Organization of Women Pilots. Once the testing period concluded, it was determined that thirteen women, Cobb and twelve others, had passed the physical examinations used to select the first NASA astronauts. Some had even performed better than the men in pain tolerance and stress coping exercises.

  • Myrtle Cagle

  • Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb

  • Jan Dietrich

  • Marion Dietrich (twin sister of Jan)

  • Wally Funk (the youngest at 23)

  • Sarah Gorelick

  • Jane Briggs Hart (the oldest at 41)

  • Jean Hixson

  • Rhea Hurrle

  • Irene Leverton

  • Jerri Sloan

  • Bernice Steadman

  • Gene Nora Stumbough [Jessen]


In order for the project to proceed, the group prepared for advanced aeromedical examinations using military equipment, such as jet aircraft, at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine (now the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute) in Pensacola, Florida. However, a few days before they were to report, they were notified the exams were cancelled. The Navy would not allow an unofficial, privately operated project to use its facilities without an official request from NASA.


Protest for women astronauts during the early 1960s
Protest for women astronauts, 1961-1962 (MAKERS)

Jerrie Cobb and Jane Hart— the oldest of the group at forty-one and the mother of eight children— traveled around the country lobbying for public support of the continuation of the Woman in Space Program by emphasizing that all women could benefit from the FLATs' inclusion in the space program. Hart used her status as the wife of Senator Phillip Hart to write to members of the Senate and House space committees as well as President John F. Kennedy. She found an ally in Liz Carpenter, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson's executive assistant. Carpenter drafted a letter for Johnson to send to NASA Administrator James Webb in favor of allowing the FLATs to continue their evaluations and accepting women into the space program, but it never made it to NASA Headquarters: Johnson wrote "Let's Stop This Now!" in large letters across the bottom of the document and demanded it be filed away. He was determined to cease any possibility that women would fly in space because he felt that if they were allowed to, everyone, meaning minorities, had to be as well. At the time, sixty years ago, that was simply not feasible. Cobb and Hart now challenged the views that women belonged at home and that American heroes had to be white men.


On July 17th and 18th of 1962, Cobb and Hart testified before a special Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics. Interestingly, these hearings investigated sex discrimination only two years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned workplace discrimination based on sex (as well as race, religion, skin color, and national origin). Cobb and Hart presented the scientific data Lovelace and his team gathered on the women's ability to successfully physically tolerate the stresses of spaceflight and tried to convince the panel it would not cost NASA a significant amount of money to involve women in its crewed space program.


Cobb and Hart testifying before the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics. Astronaut Gus Grissom's portrait hangs on the wall in the background (Smithsonian)

No matter how convincing the women's arguments were, they were no match for the people testifying against them. First on the opposing team was Jackie Cochran, the first woman to break the sound barrier and the former financial backer of the Woman in Space Program. An old friend of Lovelace's, she joined the project as an advisor with the expectation she too would undergo the astronaut physical and become part of the FLATs. However, she was denied the opportunity to be tested due to her age. After Cobb was named the leader of the FLATs and not herself, Cochran severed herself from the project and fought against it [1]. She argued there was no gender-based discrimination in the space program and that Lovelace's group of women was too small for NASA to justify creating a modified training regiment for female candidates. NASA Chief of Manned Space Flight George Low and Mercury astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter [2] testified that women could not even qualify as astronaut candidates, and they were correct: The agency, as specified by Congress, required all astronaut candidates to hold degrees in either engineering or hard science and be graduates of military test pilot schools. Despite the jokes and jabs made throughout the hearings, though, no one ever argued that women were not smart enough, strong enough, or capable enough to be astronauts. No one doubted the FLAT's abilities, skills, or dedication. Women astronauts were just not NASA's priority at the time. As history would have it, they should have been.


Cobb prepares to use the MASTIF, or Multi-Axis Space Test Inertia Facility at the Lewis Research Center in Ohio. The Mercury astronauts trained on the same machine (NASA/Associated Press)

Chayka

On the other side of the world in late 1961, while Jerrie Cobb and Jane Hart were still rallying for support of the Woman in Space Program, the Soviet Union's Chief Designer Sergei Korolev believed sending a woman into space was the next feat in trumping the American space program, which at the time had yet to put a man in orbit. On February 16, 1962, five women— Tatyana Kuznetsova, Valentina Ponomareva, Irina Solovyova, Valentina Tereshkova, and Zhanna Yorkina— joined the cosmonaut training corps as the first female space travelers, unbeknownst to the United States. Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space a year later on June 16, 1963 during Vostok 6 (callsign Chayka, or Seagull). Although the other four women would never fly, one cannot help but wonder that had the U.S. known about these cosmonauts, the FLATs would have been incorporated into NASA's astronaut corps. The Mercury Program had ended by the time Vostok 6 flew so if one of the FLATs was given a Mercury mission in an attempt to beat the Soviet Union, she really would have been the first woman in space. The group did receive media attention after Tereshkova's flight; furthermore, Clare Booth Luce published an article in Life Magazine criticizing NASA on its decision to not support Lovelace's project. The piece included the photographs and names of all thirteen women, their identities being made public for the first time [3]. Tereshkova's flight had no impact on NASA's acceptance of women candidates.


Luce's article included very short biographies of each FLAT. Click to enlarge (LIFE)

Ride, Sally, Ride

(back L-R) Sullivan, Lucid, Fischer, and Resnik. (front L-R) Ride and Seddon (NASA)

Almost two decades after Jerrie Cobb and Dr. Lovelace's tests, the first women were selected as

American astronaut candidates in 1978. The first class of astronauts to be selected since 1969 was the Thirty-Five New Guys (TFNG), one of the largest groups to date and an example of how much NASA had changed since Project Mercury [4]. The TFNG included the first Asian American (Ellison Onizuka [5]), the first three African Americans (Guy Bluford, Ron McNair, and Fred Gregory) [6], and the first six women. During the early 1980s, Anna Fischer, Shannon Lucid, Judy Resnik, Sally Ride, Rhea Seddon, and Kathy Sullivan became what the FLATs never received the chance to become and so much more. For example, Shannon Lucid became the first American woman to serve aboard a space station and is a previous U.S. single spaceflight endurance record-holder [7].


Sally Ride became the first American woman in space on STS-7 Challenger in 1983. Kathy Sullivan was the first American woman to perform an EVA in 1984 during STS-41-G, of which Ride was also a crew member [8]. In 1995, Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot the Space Shuttle during STS-63 Discovery. She then served as the first female commander of a Shuttle flight on STS-93 Columbia in 1999, as well as the program's return to flight after the STS-107 Columbia disaster in 2003 on STS-114 Discovery in 2005 [9]. The only other woman to command a Shuttle mission is Pam Melroy on STS-120 Discovery in 2007. Melroy is now the Deputy Administrator of NASA. Peggy Whitson became the first female commander of the International Space Station in 2017 and more recently, Megan McArthur was the first woman pilot of a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft on USCV-2 (also called SpaceX Crew-2) in 2021.


Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle, and Bernice Steadman stand in front of STS-63 (NASA)

On July 20, 2021, 82-year-old Wally Funk flew in space as the most distinguished and deserving member of Blue Origin's New Shepard-16 crew, the company's first human space mission. Her brief suborbital flight fulfilled a sixty-year-old dream and brought to an end a sixty-year-long battle. After watching the women she paved the way for venture into the great unknown, it was due time she did so herself. Funk and Gene Nora Jessen are the only surviving FLATs.


Wally Funk after her Blue Origin flight in 2021 (Associated Press/Tony Gutierrez)

The U.S. Air Force Space & Missile Museum at Launch Complex-26 on Cape Canaveral in Florida has a placard on the First Lady Astronaut Trainees and an exhibit case full of pictures and memorabilia dedicated to women in space.



 

Author's note: I first learned about the FLATs over summer vacation of 2013 as required reading for my middle school English class. I knew their stories before I knew the names of the Mercury and Gemini astronauts and they were my first introduction to space history. Thanks for reading and be sure to like and share this post!



[1] This is similar to how famed test pilot Chuck Yeager, despite his achievements, was not eligible for NASA astronaut candidacy and as a result was a stark critic of the space program.

[2] John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962 during Mercury-Atlas 6 (Friendship 7). Scott Carpenter became the second during Mercury-Atlas 7 (Aurora 7) on May 24.

[3] Some, such as Cobb and Hart, had already been well-known by 1963.

[4] This was NASA Group 7, sometimes called the USAF MOL Transfer group. They were a group of seven young military astronauts who were taken in by NASA after the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program was cancelled in June of 1969.

[5] Onizuka flew on STS-51-C in 1985, the first dedicated Department of Defense Space Shuttle mission, and was killed during the STS-51-L Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986 with classmates Ron McNair, Judy Resnik, and Dick Scobee.

[6] Ed Dwight was a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California and the first African American astronaut candidate in the early 1960s. Robert Lawrence was the first and only African American pilot in the Manned Orbiting Laboratory Program (see [4]).

[7] Ludic was the second woman onboard the Soviet/Russian Space Station Mir after British cosmonaut Helen Sharman during the Interkosmos program. Lucid spent 188 days on Mir.

[8] Svetlana Savitskaya became the second woman to fly in space in 1982 and the first to perform an EVA in 1984, a few months before Kathy Sullivan.

[9] One of the mission specialists, Kalpana Chawla, was the first woman of Indian origin to fly in space in 1997 onboard STS-87 Columbia.



 

Bibliography

"Ride, Sally, Ride" — from the song "Mustang Sally" written and first recorded by Mack Rice in 1965 and became more popular after Wilson Pickett's cover in 1966. The refrain "ride, Sally, ride" was used by the media frequently when reporting STS-7 in 1983.

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