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.

Big Rockets, Bigger Building

It is one of the enduring symbols of the U.S. Space Program, clearly visible from miles away as you approach the Kennedy Space Center. It’s the Vehicle Assembly Building, commonly known as the VAB, of of the largest buildings in the world. In the decades since it was built, it housed the enormous Saturn V, the Space Shuttles and soon, the Space Launch System.

The VAB was necessary because of the size of the Saturn V and the complex work necessary to put the elements of an Apollo mission together. Designed by Morrison-Knudsen, construction began in August of 1963. More than four thousand pilings were driven into the Florida bedrock, and 30,000 cubic yards of concrete were poured to create the foundation.

The massive facility was completed in 1965. It stands 526 feet tall and covers eight acres. The doors on each side are the largest in the world, at 456 feet high, and taken 45 minutes to completely open or close. They lead to the four high bays, where the Saturn V could be erected.

Apollo 14 rolls out of the VAB, headed for Pad 39A, on November 9, 1970.

Humidity can be a serious problem, so the building has a massive air conditioning system. Because the inside of the building is so large, rain clouds can actually form just below the ceiling on human days. And those big, flat walls had to be reinforced against wind, especially the powerful winds generated by hurricanes. The building was designed to withstand winds of up to 120 miles an hour.

The first stage of Apollo 8 inside the VAB on February 1st, 1968.

“I’d never seen a building that big before,” my father tells me. “The Lunar Module team had an office on the 14th or 15th floor. Windows in the office looked out over the interior, including the ground far below. I tried to keep my distance from the windows; they made me real nervous.”

Mating the Apollo 8 Command and Service module to the top of the Saturn V stack. October 1, 1968.

To accomplish the task of building the Saturn V, the building had 71 cranes and hoists, including two 250-ton bridge cranes. The VAB is 3.5 miles from Launch Pad 39A and 4.2 miles from Launch Pad 39B.  The trip aboard one of the two crawler-transports would take up to five hours.

After Skylab, the VAB was renovated to handle operations on the Space Shuttle. These days, it’s providing a home for the new Space Launch System.

For more on the effort to achieve John F. Kennedy’s challenge of putting a man on the moon, please check out my father’s memoirs. Missile Man: One Man’s Memories of Life on the Front Lines of the Space Race is now for sale on Amazon.com. The Kindle Edition is available now, and a Print-On-Demand version is coming soon.

Space History to Be Made in 2019

2019 is shaping up to be a monumental year for space exploration, especially by commercial interests hoping to fill the gap left after the United States stopped flying manned missions in 2001.  For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on launches involving spacecraft designed to carry humans aboard.   Keep in mind these launch dates are likely to be delayed.

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Visiting the Moon for Christmas

“Please be advised, there is a Santa Claus.”

Astronaut Jim Lovell, Christmas morning, 1968.

This week will mark the 50th anniversary of what I will argue was the most daring mission in the history of human space exploration. It started with three men climbing into a small capsule on December 21st.  They would return to Earth six days and three hours later. It wasn’t an effort to set an endurance record and didn’t even come close. But for the first time, mankind would come close to our nearest companion, the moon. It was an enormous risk, but one NASA was willing to make to beat the Soviet Union to the moon.

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