Women Rose Above Nasa's Sexist AttitudeSitting in the VIP stands at today's space shuttle launch will be Wally Funk, a 66-year-old pilot from Texas. Funk is at Cape Canaveral because shuttle commander Eileen Collins asked her to be there.
Collins invited Funk and 12 other women pilots -- now known as Mercury 13 -- to witness NASA's Return to Flight. "I stand on their shoulders," Collins says. A generation ago, the Mercury 13 paved the way for women in space. But Collins is about the only person who recognizes their achievement.
In 1961, 13 crackerjack women pilots secretly traveled to Albuquerque, N.M., to undergo the same grueling tests that John Glenn, Alan Shepard and the other Mercury astronauts endured. Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II, the head of Life Sciences for NASA, helped select the Mercury astronauts and wanted to find out if top-flight women pilots might perform as well.
They did. In some cases the women even surpassed the test scores of the men. Lovelace believed because women weighed less and consumed less oxygen, they might in fact make better astronauts than men.
Lovelace arranged for additional psychological exams and space flight simulation tests for the women. But at the 11th hour, just as the women were poised to begin final testing in Florida, NASA pulled the plug. It had no interest in women astronauts and viewed Lovelace's testing as an independent project. Why waste money on women, NASA argued.
That's when the Mercury 13 women broke their silence. After having risked jobs and marriages for the chance to fly into space, they were not about to let NASA's sexist attitude stand in their way.
They spoke out and arranged for the meeting with Vice President Lyndon Johnson, head of the Space Council. After listening to the women's appeal, Johnson said his hands were tied: A women-in-space program was NASA's call. What the women did not know was that Johnson later penned his opinion at the bottom of a letter to NASA. When it came to the possibility of women in space, Johnson had just four words: "Let's Stop This Now."
With few cards left to play, the women asked for a meeting before the House Subcommittee on Science and Astronautics. Standing before Congress, their request was plainspoken: "We seek only a place in our nation's space future without discrimination."
What followed was a nightmare. Congressmen made jokes about women's reproductive capacities. Called in to testify, astronaut John Glenn said what many were already thinking. Men go off and fly the planes and fight the wars and women stay at home. "It's a fact of our social order."
Glenn's comments were the last straw and Congress decided that space was no place for a woman. It took the monumental leaps of the civil rights and women's movements in the '60s and '70s before NASA in 1978 finally allowed women in the space program.
But it was too late for the Mercury 13. They never got their chance to fly.
Last month the Adler Planetarium in Chicago did what few organizations have done. They recognized the Mercury 13 with their 2005 Leaders in Space Science Award. Capt. James Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, applauded the women for the crucial role they played in space history.
The rest of the country should follow Adler's lead. There are no exhibits chronicling the Mercury 13's achievement at the Smithsonian, Kennedy or Johnson space centers. Around the country, science and history museums don't mention them. No college or university has ever awarded them an honorary degree. The White House has never acknowledged the women's sacrifice.
The American public needs to at least know their names: Myrtle Cagle, Jerrie Cobb, Jan and Marion Dietrich, Wally Funk, Jane Hart, Jean Hixon, Gene Nora Jessen, Irene Leverton, Sarah Ratley, Bernice Steadman, Jerri Truhill, Rhea Woltman.
Now is the time that the rest of the country appreciates what Collins has known for a long time. The Mercury 13 opened the door.