The Mercury 13

In 1960, Dr. William Lovelace invited female aviator Jerrie Cobb to undergo the same series of tests he had designed for the screening of the NASA’s Mercury astronauts. She first flew at the age of 12. By the time she was 29, Cobb was a highly experienced pilot, with more than seven thousand hours in the air and held three aviation world records. She readily accepted Lovelace’s offer.

Jerrie Cobb

Nineteen other women were recruited to also undergo the testing. Eventually thirteen, including Cobb, passed the first phase of physical testing. They were called the First Lady Astronaut Trainees, but were better known as the Mercury 13. Cobb and two others went through Phase II, which consisted of psychological evaluations and an isolation tank test. Phase III involved medical testing using Navy jets and equipment. Cobb passed, but the tests were shut down. The Navy refused to allow the unofficial and unsanctioned tests to continue.  But Cobb has passed all three phases with flying colors, ranking among the top two percent of all the men and women who underwent the tests.[1]

Cobb didn’t give up, going to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the continuation of the testing program. In May 1961, NASA Administrator James Webb appointed her as a special consultant. A year later, in July of 1962, she testified before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronauts on the qualifications of astronauts. In her opening remarks, she said, “We hope that you ladies and gentlemen will, after these hearings and due consideration, help implement the inclusion of qualified women in the U.S. manned space program.”[2]

NASA stood its ground. Chief of Manned Space Flight George Low, along with John Glenn and Scott Carpenter defended NASA’s selection criteria. They explained that NASAQ had no bias against women, but the no women were qualified. Glenn told the subcommittee: “The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design an build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable.”

The hearings ended and so did the official discussion of women as astronauts. Meanwhile, the first woman to fly in space was already in training. She just wasn’t an American.

The first American woman in space was Sally Ride, aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983, twenty-two years after Alan Shepard’s first flight.  Ride was selected as part of NASA’s Astronaut Group 8 in 1978. Group 8 was the first new astronaut class since 1969. The thirty-five selected included the first six women, three African-Americans[3] and Asian-American to become astronauts.


[1] https://www.flickr.com/photos/nasacommons/9457843321/in/photolist-fpKVja-r8qWwg-cubwDj

[2] https://www.scribd.com/document/81825267/Qualifications-for-Astronauts-Hearing-1962

[3] Major Robert Lawrence, an African-American, was selected by the Air Force in 1967 to become an astronaut in their Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, but he was died after ejecting from an F-104 jet at Edwards Air Force Base in December of 1967. The MOL program was cancelled in 1969, and seven of the astronauts in the program transferred to NASA and flew during the Space Shuttle program. Lawrence could easily have been one of them.

The In-Flight Menu: Food in the Space Race

An excerpt from Before This Decade is Out

Yuri Gagarin was the first man in orbit, and the first man to attempt eating and drinking in space. Soviet and American doctors weren’t sure if it could even be done, so it was a priority to find out as soon as possible. During his flight, Gagarin sampled from a toothpaste-style tube containing meat paste and one containing chocolate sauce. Other foods used in the early Soviet missions included soups, cottage cheese and coffee, all of which were stored in the tube containers.

John Glenn became the first American to eat in space. He, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper were treated to an unappetizing diet consisting of pureed foods sucked with a straw out of aluminum tubes. They proved that humans could chew and swallow, as well as drink, while in orbit. The menu included things like apple sauce and pureed beef and vegetables.  There were also cubes of dehydrated foods packed in plastic. These would be rehydrated as they were chewed.

For the longer duration Gemini missions, NASA introduced freeze-dried, pre-cooked foods. These were usually coated with oil or gelatin to prevent crumbling and packed in a thick plastic bag with a valve for water at one end. Cold water from the spacecraft was used to rehydrate the food for consumption and the bag would be cut open with scissors. The menu included shrimp cocktail, beef stew, chicken and rice, and turkey with gravy. Fruit flavored drinks and cocoa were available Three meals were provided per day and the menu was repeated every four days. One example breakfast meal included peaches, bacon squares, cinnamon toast bread cubes, grape drink, and orange drink.[1] Each day, the diet provided for 2,500 calories.

Things improved on Apollo. The meal plan provided the astronauts with 2,800 calories per day. The variety of freeze-dried foods increased. The Command Module provided hot water as well as cold. The packaging was easier to open and the food could be eaten with a spoon. In addition, food could also be stored in Wet Packs that didn’t need to be rehydrated. The selection of drinks expanded to include coffee, tea and lemonade. Over the course of the program, the astronauts were given more freedom to choose their own meals. New items were added to the menus, including hot dogs and ham. Free flowing salt and pepper would have created a terrible mess, so liquid alternatives were provided. If the Command Module was depressurized for any reason, the astronauts would be able to eat liquid foods through a port built into their helmets.

For the cosmonauts, the tubes remained in use but were bolstered can canned foods and foods contained in plastic pouches. Bread was baked in one-bite rolls to prevent crumbs. Meat, including veal, ham, and steak was prepared just before launch. The Soviets didn’t begin experimenting with dehydrated foods until 1974 aboard Salyut 3.[2] The Soviets also allowed cosmonauts small rations of vodka and brandy.

Oh, before I forget. Two notes about famous space foods.

John Glenn did drink Tang on his orbital mission. It was also carried aboard some Gemini flights. It was not, however, created by or for NASA. William Mitchell created it for General Foods, who began marketing it in 1957. Mitchell is the same clever guy who gave us Cool Whip and Pop Rocks candy.

And that freeze-dried Astronaut Ice Cream people loved to buy at souvenir stores? NASA had mistakenly included it on a list of foods aboard the Apollo 7 mission, but it didn’t actually make the cut. Because of its crumbly nature, it would have created too much of a mess in microgravity.


[1] https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/143163main_Space.Food.and.Nutrition.pdf

[2] Comparison Of Soviet And U.S. Space Food And Nutrition Programs, Page 1-8, https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19890010688.pdf

Writing Space History – Part I

I am wrapping up my first week of working full time on a book I’m called “Before This Decade Is Out.” It’s a history of the Space Race, of the American Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs; the Soviet Vostok, Voshkod and Soyuz missions; and the memories of the people who worked on the ground at the Kennedy Space Center. As I prepared to publish my father’s memoirs, I realized that there were thousands of other people with their own perspective of life at the Cape. I’ve read the books about and by the astronauts and other key figures, but I wanted to know more about what the grunts doing the work on the ground to make the programs a success.

John Glenn boarding Friendship 7 before becoming the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962.

Hence, the new book. I’m seeking out those eyewitnesses who are still with us to find out what their experiences were from the time. I’ve had to figure out how best to record telephone or video chats (OBS Studio is my friend), and how to efficiently transcribe them. While I’m searching for more interviews, I’ve created the basic structure of the book. It’s organized chronologically, with a series of entries about the missions, the astronauts and the key events that took place from 1958 to 1973.

Apollo 12 Command Module Pilot Dick Gordon orbiting the moon aboard the Yankee Clipper.

Writing history requires accurate sources, and here I’m eternally grateful to the work of the early NASA historians, whose comprehensive works are available online. Other sources were written by historians or the participants themselves. Notable among them so far is flight controller Gene Kranz’s autobiography Failure Is Not an Option, Andrew Chaikan’s A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, and Moon Shot, which includes memories from astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. The writing requires a measure of precision. Not all of the sources agree on the details, which becomes a distraction and requires additional research. Finding just the right words to explain concepts, like orbital maneuvering, takes time and requires frequent rewrites.

The ascent stage of a Lunar Module being prepared for flight.

The first draft is going to take at least several more weeks, but this is a passion project for me. And when all is said and done, I hope you’ll enjoy the amazing story I’m trying to tell!