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.



[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.