The Largely Forgotten "Mercury 13"
Published at : 04 Dec 2020
On February 14, 1960, Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb arrived at the sprawling Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and prepared to make history. At age 30, Cobb was already one of the world’s most accomplished female pilots, having been the first woman to fly the Paris Air Show and holding three world records for speed, distance, and absolute altitude for light aircraft. But all these accomplishments paled next to the challenge that now lay before her, for Cobb was about to brave the same battery of medical tests that had been used to select the Mercury Seven, America’s first astronauts.
On December 17, 1958, more than a year after the launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, the newly-formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced the creation of Project Mercury, America’s first manned space program. The goals of Project Mercury were to place a man in orbit, evaluate whether he could effectively live and work there, and return him safely to the earth. Yet despite these relatively modest aims, the technological challenge was immense, with much of the required technology - from rockets and spacecraft to guidance and life support systems to a worldwide orbital tracking system - having to be adapted from existing military equipment or developed from scratch. Yet the greatest unknown was the human who would occupy the spacecraft itself - the astronaut.
In the late 1950s, little was known about the effects of spaceflight on the human body, with doctors variously speculating that microgravity might disorient and incapacitate an astronaut, cause their eyeballs to deform, or make swallowing food impossible. Given these unknowns, at first NASA struggled to decide just who to send into space. While a variety of candidates were initially put forth including circus performers, race car drivers, mountaineers, deep-sea divers, and other adventurers, in the end the selection committee narrowed their focus to an altogether rarer breed: military test pilots. Test pilots, NASA reasoned, were already tough, resourceful, cool under pressure, and accustomed to handling experimental vehicles under extreme conditions. Based on this decision the committee produced a set of selection criteria which were distributed to all military test flying establishments. According to these requirements, the ideal astronaut candidate was under 40 years old and 5 feet 11 inches in height, married, in peak physical condition, a qualified jet test pilot with at least 1500 hours flying time, and possessed a bachelor’s degree in engineering.
Of 508 total submissions 32 pilots were selected for final evaluation, being subjected to a gruelling series of physical and psychological tests intended to push their bodies and minds to their absolute limits. Finally, on April 9, 1959, NASA unveiled America’s first group of astronauts, who would forever be known as the “Mercury Seven.” They were Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Leroy Gordon Cooper, and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton of the U.S. Air Force; Alab B. Shepard, Malcolm Scott Carpenter, and Walter M. “Wally” Schirra of the U.S. Navy; and John H. Glenn of the U.S. Marine Corps. All were chosen for their unique combination of skill, intuition, and nerve that in test pilot circles became known simply as “The Right Stuff.”
But while most agreed the Mercury Seven were the absolute best that could have been chosen under the circumstances, many wondered whether others might also have the Right Stuff - including women. Among these were Air Force Brigadier General Donald Flickinger and Dr. William R. Lovelace, who had designed many of the medical tests used to select the astronauts. At the time medical knowledge of female physiology was limited in extreme scenarios, but it was known that on average women were lighter and more compact than men, consumed less food, oxygen, and water, and were better able to withstand long periods of tedium - ideal qualities for an astronaut. But Flickinger and Lovelace knew that without hard data NASA would never consider making women astronauts, so the two conceived of a research program wherein female pilots would be run through the same evaluation tests as the male astronauts. Phase I testing would take place at Lovelace’s research clinic in Albuquerque , and Phase II at Wright-Paterson Air Force Base in Ohio. All that was needed was the right test subject.
They didn’t have long to wait.