• Aeryn Avilla

Hidden Histories: The Mercury 13 (FLATs)

Updated: Jul 20

There have been many successful and influential female American astronauts over the past three decades— Sally Ride, Mae Jemison, Eileen Collins, Peggy Whitson. These ladies were the legacies of an unrecognized and often uncredited group of women known as the FLATs, or First Lady Astronaut Trainees. Given that they were active during the Mercury program, they are more commonly known today as the Mercury 13. However, that name is a misnomer due to the fact they had no affiliation with NASA.


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


Disclaimer: This is in no way meant to degrade or undermine the overall importance of certain historical figures who were against the program.


The man was Dr. Randy Lovelace, a former doctor at NASA who took part in the medical examinations and testings of those who would become the Mercury 7 Astronauts. The town was Albuquerque, New Mexico, home of the Lovelace Clinic. The first of these women was Jerrie Cobb, a young record-breaking pilot who had flying since she was only twelve. Lovelace and Donald Flickinger, an early expert on space medicine, asked her if she would be willing to be their first subject for female astronaut training in 1960. While in New Mexico, she became the first woman to undergo the same tests as the Mercury candidates did. The doctors told her she had passed the tests and even performed better than the men during some and the results proved multiple theories involving topics such as pain tolerance and coping with stress. Later that year, Dr. Lovelace presented his findings to an international space conference in Stockholm, Sweden, but NASA did not take the bait. He determined that one woman's results was not enough and rounded up another eighteen accomplished pilots— the youngest of whom was only twenty-one— to do the same as Jerrie. From January to August of 1961, they made Albuquerque their new home. They were poked, prodded, spun, tilted, isolated, and put through every other grueling task the docs could come up with. None of them showed any sign of weakness. According to FLAT Jerri Sloan Truhill, "We never stopped until they told us to stop. We didn't even say ouch and, boy, did they hurt us." Once those test, the phase one tests, were over, Dr. Lovelace went over the results and concluded that thirteen of the nineteen had passed with flying colors. Some did better than the men. Even back then it was known that Ginger Rogers was just as good as Fred Astaire and did all the steps backwards and in high heels. These new pioneers of the Space Race were Myrtle "K" Cagle, Jerrie Cobb, Jan Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Wally Funk, Sarah Gorelick Ratley, Jane Hart, Jean Hixson, Rhea Hurrle Woltman, Irene Leverton, Jerri Sloan Truhill, Bernice "B" Steadman, and Gene Nora Stumbough. Later on, however, the phase of testing that went on at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Pensacola, Florida, was cancelled and NASA expressed its decision of not considering sending women into space. It is important to remember that the agency was not associated with the Lovelace testings nor the establishment of the Mercury 13.

Now that it was proven that women were capable of being astronauts, the Mercury 13 needed to prove that women had the right to be astronauts. Jerrie Cobb and Jane Hart flew around the country lobbying for support by emphasizing that all women could benefit from the program. Although President John F. Kennedy was on their side, NASA still was not. Jane used her status as the wife of Senator Phillip Hart to write to members of the Senate and House space committees. She found an ally in Liz Carpenter, Vice President Lyndon Johnson's executive assistant. Carpenter drafted a letter for Johnson to send to NASA Administrator James Webb in favor of sending women into space. Johnson, However, took the letter and wrote "Let's Stop This Now!" in large letters across the bottom and demanded that it be filed away. He was determined to cease any possibility that women would fly in space. Why? Johnson felt that if women were to be allowed in space, everyone, meaning minorities, had to be allowed in space as well. At the time, that just was not something that could be done. That is no longer a problem in today's society but in 1962, it was a pretty big deal. If that was not bad enough, some of the Mercury 7 astronauts were not on their side either. Jerrie and Jane were no longer challenging only the American view that women belonged at home, but now the view that American heroes had to be white men. It was not until 1983 that Guy Bluford became the first African American in space. Additionally, NASA astronauts needed to be jet pilots, an occupation women simply were not allowed to have. As time went on, though, Jerrie and Jane continued to win support from the public and the fight became a little less uneven.

Jerrie Cobb with Mercury capsule mockup (wikipedia.com)


If NASA really believed women did not have a part in the space program, they would have to prove it publicly. On July 17, 1962, Cobb and Hart sat at the witness table in front of eleven US representatives, two of which were women, to testify. Nowadays, no one questions whether or not women should still be astronauts but in the early 1960s, people could not seem to wrap their heads around the idea that women could perform any of the jobs men could, much less become an astronaut. The entire country now knew the names of the other eleven FLATs just as they knew the names of the Mercury 7. Jerrie and Jane presented the scientific data that Dr. Lovelace and his team had acquired and used it to inform the representatives that it would not cost NASA a significant amount of money to involve women in the space program. Cobb also made it very clear that this was not a battle of the sexes but a battle for women to be part of space exploration. For a while, Jerrie and Jane were winning that battle, slowly convincing the subcommittee that women belonged in the cosmos along with men. But things were about to change. Enter Jackie Cochran, the first woman to break the sound barrier. Now, Cochran seems like she would be a supporter of Cobb and Hart, right? Wrong. Just as Chuck Yeager was not a fan of the space program, Jackie was no fan of the FLATs. And for the same reason— she was not part of it. She was actually in support of Dr. Lovelace from the very start and assumed he was bringing her in for a leadership role. She also wanted to be tested with the rest of the women. When Dr. Lovelace denied her the opportunity to be tested due to her age and previous health issues, she became furious. Another factor was the attention Cobb received from not only the doctors but the media as well (though it was not always a positive thing). Cochran hated that Cobb was viewed as the leader of the pack although in all respects she was. And so the famed pilot came to testify against the FLATs with the following major claims: There is no discrimination against women in the space program, there are plenty of male test pilots to do the job, and there needs to be a big enough group of abled women in order for a group of women trainees to be selected. It seemed to be a losing battle. Instead, Jackie proposed an entirely different project, one that would study a large group of women over a long period of time. This changed the conversation entirely; it was no longer about the FLATs but rather her own agenda.


Protest for women astronauts, 1961-1962 (MAKERS)


Two astronauts, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, were present for the following day's hearing. Both had flown orbital missions earlier in the year and were known throughout the entire Western world as good old-fashioned American heroes. If there was one thing NASA was good at doing, it was using its all-star astronauts for advocating and who better to choose to testify than John Glenn? Now it was NASA's turn to take the floor. The issue of test pilots was brought up again, as it was over the past few years, this time by two actual test pilots. Women were simply not allowed to be these kind of pilots and therefore not allowed to be astronauts because experience as a test pilot was a basic eligibility requirement. It seems logical when put that way, but then why weren't women allowed to be test pilots to begin with? For that matter, why weren't they largely allowed to join the military? The thing is, NASA had already bent its own rules: It was a requirement for astronauts to have college degrees and their very own spokesman John Glenn did not. These women did have degrees and were accomplished pilots. NASA could have figured a way to include the FLATs but simply chose not to. After all, it was not the agency's fault women could not be test pilots nor was it NASA's decisions that only test pilots could be astronauts. It was then that Glenn put into words the reasons behind all these problems: "I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized, really. It is just a fact. 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." This much was true, but why was it true? Why did it have to be that way? What about all the WASPs contributed? [1] Cobb and Hart and the FLATs and protesters in the South and everywhere else knew that the social order as a whole needed to change. But it was people like Glenn, Johnson, and all those who used rules and regulations to prevent change who stopped it from happening, at least for the time being. Despite the little jokes and jabs that were made throughout the hearings, no one ever argued that women were not strong enough or capable enough or smart enough to be astronauts. And just like that, the trials were over. No third day testimony. The subcommittee suggested to NASA that it continue what it was doing just the way it currently was. James Webb swore Jackie Cochran in as a consultant to replace Cobb, who had let her contract expire months earlier. This would all come back to bite the space program when the Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. [2]


Scott Carpenter once said that the Mercury 13 were ahead of their time. He could not have been more right. The social order changed dramatically in the 1960s and by 1978, women were finally ready to be accepted into the Astronaut Corps. The first astronaut class to be selected after the Space Race had ended was the Thirty-Five New Guys, or TFNG. Chief Astronaut John Young and Director of Flight Operations George Abbey selected a very diverse group that would be mimicked over the next four decades- an Asian American, three African Americans, and finally, six women. I bring up John Young because he was selected as an astronaut the same year as the hearings and is responsible for the sudden changes in the Corps. These six women— Sally Ride, Shannon Lucid, Judy Resnik, Rhea Seddon, Anna Fischer, and Kathy Sullivan— became what the Mercury 13 never had the chance to become. They still had to prove that they were not only as good as but better than the men, just as the FLATs did. However, it was not until 1983, twenty years after Tereshkova's flight, that Sally Ride became the first American woman in space on STS-7. It was not until 1995 that Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot a Space Shuttle mission and 1999 before she became the first woman commander. No longer were women the passengers. Women got to truly fly.


Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman stand in front of STS-63, the first mission to be piloted by a woman astronaut.

(NASA)


On July 20, 2021, 82-year-old Wally Funk flew in space as part of the crew of Blue Origin's First Human Flight 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.


Thank you for taking the time to read my first blog post. Feel free to leave comments and please like and share this post!


[1] The WASPs, or Women Airforce Service Pilots, were civilian women that undertook noncombat military flight duties during World War II.

[2] Cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya became the second woman in space in 1982




Bibliography

  • Hallonquist, Al. Mercury 13 - the Women of the Mercury Era, www.mercury13.com/.

  • Stone, Tanya Lee, and Margaret A. Weitekamp. Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream. Candlewick Press, 2009.

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