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Promised the MoonThe Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race
By Stephanie Nolen
Thunder's Mouth PressCopyright © 2004 Stephanie Nolen
All right reserved.
There were no clouds. Just empty sky, still brushed pink by the sunrise. She scanned the horizon absently, the way a pilot always checks the sky: no ceiling. Unlimited visibility. She had plenty of flying to do today. It would be fine.
It was early September 1959, and Geraldyn-Jerrie-Cobb was walking on the beach in Miami. She would have liked to have this quiet hour to herself, to walk just above the water's edge and have the waves lick her bare feet. She was happiest by herself. But she had company that morning-the beach stroll was the suggestion of her boss, Tom Harris. They were attending the annual convention of the Air Force Association, and they had plans to make.
At twenty-eight, Jerrie was a pilot and manager for Aero Design and Engineering Company in Oklahoma City, one of the largest aircraft manufacturers in the United States. That made her one of just two or three women in the country with a senior job at an aeronautic company-a distinction of which she was acutely aware at gatherings such as this. There weren't many women around, and those there were tended to be wives brought along for the trip, or secretaries, or sales assistants, atbest. There would be some raised eyebrows when Jerrie pulled herself up into the cockpit of her twin-engine Aero Commander later. But she had long since stopped noticing those.
By that September morning, Jerrie had logged more than seven thousand hours in the air. She had set three world records-for altitude, distance and speed-in the Commander. Just that summer, she was awarded the Gold Wings of Achievement of the Fidiration Aironautique Internationale in Paris, one of aviation's highest honors.
Flying at conventions like this was a regular part of her job, attracting publicity for the company and showing off the Commander to potential buyers-she would fly with one engine deliberately cut out, then come in low, just fifty feet above the ground. And make it all look easy, so easy a girl with a ponytail could do it.
Her boss, Tom Harris, had plenty of admiration for Jerrie's flying. But he also liked the way the record holder with the freckles and the spectator pumps sold his airplanes. He told her the plan for the day: where she would be flying, who was interested in the plane and what the customers wanted to see.
Just as they turned back toward their hotel, they passed two men emerging from the surf, flushed from an early morning swim. Harris knew the pair, and he introduced Jerrie to them: Donald Flickinger and Randy Lovelace.
Every pilot in the country in 1959 probably knew those names-these were two of the most important men in aerospace medicine. Jerrie certainly knew them. She knew Lovelace ran a research clinic in New Mexico and held a top post at NASA: he had helped select the Mercury 7, the United States' first astronauts. And she knew Flickinger was an air force brigadier general, a pioneer in aviation medicine who had led the tests that told the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that a human might survive spaceflight.
The two men didn't know Jerrie Cobb.
But Jerrie and Tom joined them as they strolled along the shore. Lovelace and Flickinger had just flown in from Moscow where they had attended a conference of space scientists. They told Harris how it had buzzed with rumors that the Soviets were trying to put a man into space. They were musing about developments in Soviet aeronautics when Jerrie quietly commented on the problems that a particular plane caused Russian pilots. Lovelace and Flickinger turned to look at her in surprise.
"Are you a pilot?" Lovelace asked.
At that moment, Jerrie says, "I met destiny in one tiny question."
Oh yes, she told them. "I've been flying for sixteen years."
Flickinger was startled. "Sixteen years! You don't look old enough to have a license."
Jerrie began to blush and stuttered about how she'd started flying at twelve.
Harris jumped in to brag a little, telling them about the records Jerrie had set for Aero, and her Gold Wings. "She's got more than seven thousand hours in her logbook," he told them.
Flickinger said he was always interested in what women were doing in aviation and mentioned that the air force had just designed a pressure suit for the French aviatrix Jacqueline Auriol to use for her jet record attempts.
"You better make one of those pressure suits for Jerrie," Harris replied with a laugh. "She's liable to try for a record in space next!"
But Lovelace didn't laugh.
"As a matter of fact," he said, suddenly quite serious, "we had indications at the Moscow meeting that the Russians are planning to put women on spaceflights."
There was, Jerrie recalls, a pause in the conversation. "The two scientists were obviously mulling something over." They asked Jerrie if she could meet with them again later in the day.
And so that afternoon, Jerrie joined Flickinger and Lovelace in an ornate room off the lobby of the Fontainebleau Hotel. Lovelace asked her about the other female commercial pilots in the United States: could she estimate their average age? What kind of physical shape were they in?
Then he explained why he was asking: "Medical and psychological investigations have long shown that women are better than men at withstanding pain, heat, cold, loneliness and monotony," he began, and all those were sure to be factors in spaceflight. But there was no research on how women held up in space stress tests. Jerrie was startled to hear it. The space race was consuming America, and the nation knew all about the elaborate tests used to select the Mercury 7 and to see how they might fare in the challenges of this new environment. But nobody had looked at women?
Lovelace told her the last testing of female pilots was done on the Women Airforce Service Pilots in World War II, a corps of eleven hundred female ferry pilots. Research on their flying hours showed they were better able to tolerate isolation and extremes of temperature than male pilots. But there had been no further study in the past fifteen years. Flickinger and Lovelace had decided it was high time someone got back to the question. The general envisioned a "girl astronaut" program for the Air Research and Development Command, the experimental wing of the air force trying to get America into space. Lovelace, who was Flickinger's mentor in the emerging field of bioastronautics, had been pushing a program for women. And so they had a question for Jerrie: "Would you be willing to be a test subject for the first research on women as astronauts?"
It was a fateful invitation.
Donald Flickinger was a risk taker (best known for parachuting into cannibal-populated islands in the South Pacific to treat victims of plane crashes) consumed by the desire to put an American in space. Randy Lovelace was a pioneering research scientist, a man who loved a puzzle. When they asked Jerrie to volunteer, they had big plans.
They made their offer to a woman who had been flying since she was twelve, flying at the cost of all else, flying faster and higher, pushing planes so far up into the darkening blue that her hands froze to the controls. Would she volunteer for astronaut testing? Oh, yes.
On October 4, 1957, the United States heard the crack of the starter's gun in the race for space. "Soviets Fire Earth Satellite Into Space ... Sphere Tracked in 4 Crossings Over U.S.," said a banner headline on the front page of the normally circumspect New York Times.
The story seemed too fantastic to be true, like something out of one of those creepy science fiction movies playing at the drive-in. A Soviet rocket had taken a little machine and put it into orbit around the earth. The newspapers called it a "Red Moon." It was up there, impossibly high-so high it was in space-but you could see it going overhead. In the late evening or early morning, when the sun was near enough to the horizon to reflect off its polished surface, you could see Sputnik making its steady, unfathomably fast trek across the sky.
The Soviets had been promising they would launch an earth satellite for some time. In fact, they had even invited U.S. scientists to include measurement equipment on the craft. But the Americans dismissed their talk as empty bragging. Everyone knew the Russians were backward peasants who could not match American technical innovation. The U.S. science establishment was so sure that it would be first with a human-made object in space that the Americans did not even have the equipment to monitor Sputnik, and could not pick up its radio signal until the third ninety-six-minute orbit.
In 1946 military engineers had told U.S. president Harry Truman that the first rockets could possibly be modified to carry a small payload-basic communications equipment, for example-into orbit, but he saw no value in the plan. His successor, Dwight Eisenhower, understood that an earth satellite would give a country access to the airspace of its enemies, but he proved as deaf to the political value of the satellite as Truman was to its strategic value.
Eisenhower approved a plan to launch a satellite sometime in the International Geophysical Year, an innovative international collaboration to study the upper atmosphere that began on July 1, 1957. Eisenhower was told that Russians were also working on a satellite, but he wasn't bothered by the idea that the Soviet Union might be first-that, the president felt, would establish an international "open skies" policy, allowing monitoring of enemy countries from the reaches of space. If the United States did it first, on the other hand, the Soviets could make angry charges about American spying; Eisenhower pictured the Russians getting a twisted public relations advantage from an American satellite.
The man behind the Soviet space program, however, saw the U.S. plans for the IGY as a challenge. Sergei Korolev, the rocket scientist whom the Soviets identified only as the Chief Designer, was determined to launch a satellite before the confident Americans.
The idea of the race was not new: it had been building since the end of World War II. But until Sputnik, the contest had centered on weapons. In 1945, the United States was supplying the ill-equipped Russians with technology and hardware in their joint war with Germany. Just four years later, the two nations were in a competition of their own over arsenals. By the early 1950s, both countries had ten-megaton thermonuclear weapons-bombs so big that planes could not carry them. Now the race moved to ballistic missiles: bombs carried farther and faster by rockets.
At the turn of the twentieth century, a Russian school teacher named Konstantin Tsiliovsky had devised an equation to launch a rocket past the pull of earth's gravity, and he suggested the liquid fuel mix of liquid oxygen and hydrogen that is the basis for modern rocketry. But it was an American physicist named Robert Goddard who was the first to make it work. In 1926, he fired a small rocket 184 feet into the air-this first shot in the American bid for space landed ignominiously in a cabbage patch.
While Goddard was making his homemade rockets, a German engineer had arrived at the same technological breakthrough. Wernher von Braun was a brilliant and charismatic aristocrat. As a teenager, he became convinced that liquid-fueled rockets could be made big enough to carry people into space, and he developed a crude rocket. His talents were soon enlisted by the military because the Treaty of Versailles, which strictly curbed German military expansion, did not ban rockets. The Nazi general Walter Dornberger set up von Braun in a rocket research center on the Baltic peninsula of Peenem|nde, and by October 1943 he had produced a guideable rocket. Hitler ordered mass production of this new weapon, the V2, by concentration camp labor. The V2 could carry more than a ton of explosives 150 miles in less than five minutes, and the Nazis' "vengeance rocket" wreaked havoc on Britain and Western Europe in the last years of the war, killing seven thousand people. That legacy of destruction was to shape the American space program.
In January 1945, von Braun realized Germany was losing the war and decided to take his pioneering technology to the Americans. Most of his team and much of their huge trove of engineering documents were brought to the United States in a secret project called Operation Paperclip. The German engineers were installed on a base in Fort Bliss, Texas. Their first assignments were mostly low priority, such as upper-atmosphere probes. But in 1949, after the Soviets exploded a nuclear bomb, the Germans in Texas were given orders to upgrade the V2 into a tactical nuclear missile for the army. The next year, the Americans brought them to a newly established army base in Huntsville, Alabama, and put the Germans to work on what would become the Redstone rocket. But it was some time before von Braun got to show what he thought rockets should be doing.
When it became obvious in the mid-1950s that the launch of a satellite could be part of the International Geophysical Year, Eisenhower gave responsibility for the project to the Pentagon. The military chiefs in turn chose the navy, which proposed to upgrade its small Viking research rocket. Wernher von Braun had heard the Soviets talk about the satellites, and he ground his teeth in frustration: he knew his rocket was capable of launching a small satellite, that with his rocket America could be first, yet the grapevine told him the navy was months or years away from being able to do it. Von Braun, famous in the United States for writing about the imminent settlement of Mars, began to develop Project Orbiter, a plan to launch a satellite on his rocket.
But von Braun's rocket was military; a direct descendant of the V2 that had terrorized Britain, and Eisenhower was determined to keep the optics peaceful. In truth, the president had put a high priority on space spying, and the Defense Department was secretly at work on satellites that would give the U.S. military a way to look behind the iron curtain. But the Viking rocket had no military history, and the navy project would look, as much as possible, like a civilian research effort. Von Braun was told to keep working on missiles, but Orbiter was scrapped. Nonetheless, von Braun and his team quietly continued work on the follow-up to the Redstone, a four-stage rocket called Jupiter C, which he was sure could launch a satellite.
Then came Sputnik-properly called Iskustvennyi Sputnik Zemlyi, Russian for "traveling companion of the world." It is difficult today to understand the fear Sputnik created in 1957. Through the lens of history, the satellite looks like a shiny steel beach ball.
Excerpted from Promised the Moon by Stephanie Nolen Copyright © 2004 by Stephanie Nolen. Excerpted by permission.
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