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When Valentina Tereshkova blasted off aboard Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963, she became the first woman to rocket into space. It would be 19 years before another woman got a chance—cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982—followed by American astronaut Sally Ride a year later. By breaking the stratospheric ceiling, these women forged a path for many female astronauts, cosmonauts, and mission specialists to follow.
Women in Space profiles 23 pioneers, including Eileen Collins, the first woman to command the space shuttle; Peggy Whitson, who logged more than a year in orbit aboard the International Space Station; and Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space; as well as astronauts from Japan, Canada, Italy, South Korea, France, and more. Readers will also learn about the Mercury 13, American women selected by NASA in the late 1950s to train for spaceflight. Though they matched and sometimes surpassed their male counterparts in performance, they were ultimately denied the opportunity to head out to the launching pad. Their story, and the stories of the pilots, physicists, and doctors who followed them, demonstrate the vital role women have played in the quest for scientific understanding.
About the Author
Karen Bush Gibson is the author of three dozen books for young readers, including Women Aviators and Native American History for Kids.
Read an Excerpt
Women in Space
23 Stories of First Flights, Scientific Missions, and Gravity-Breaking Adventures
By Karen Bush Gibson
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2014 Karen Bush Gibson
All rights reserved.
THE MERCURY 13
Like universities across the country, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh holds its spring commencement in May. In addition to celebrating the year's graduates, the school, like many colleges, recognizes special people by awarding them with honorary doctorates. In 2007, the University of Wisconsin conferred doctorates on 13 women who showed their determination, strength, and bravery in the Space Race with accomplishments that paved the way for generations.
Many Americans have heard of the Mercury 7. When America's first seven astronauts were announced, their confident, smiling faces appeared on television and on magazine covers. Later, these seven test pilots were further immortalized in the book The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe and in the award-winning 1983 movie of the same name. But have you heard of the Mercury 13? Many people haven't. When the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh honored the Mercury 13, the event made news because the story had been kept fairly quiet for almost 50 years.
The Mercury 13 were America's first women astronauts. According ABC News correspondent Natalie Arnold, who covered the story, the Mercury 13 are the women our country didn't want anyone to know about.
In truth, even the name Mercury 13 was relatively new. For more than 30 years, these women weren't known as anything other than who they were. But the 13 women were some of the best pilots in the world in the early 1960s. They underwent the same tests and indignities that the original Mercury 7 went through, and more. And they passed. Some of them even exceeded the performance of the male astronauts. Several of the women let themselves hope that they, too, would get to show their "right stuff" and fly into space.
If Americans ever knew, many of them forgot that these women had taken part in astronaut testing in the early 1960s. Others tried to sweep the brief flirtation that America had with women astronauts under the rug. But the story refused to die. Along the way, people began to refer to the group as the "Mercury 13."
Although some of the women knew each other, most did not meet until 1986, when Bernice "B" Steadman decided to hold a 25th anniversary get-together. Not everyone came, but enough women came to find that they had a bond that would last throughout time.
In 1994, Gene Nora Jessen tried again. A former president of the Ninety-Nines, Inc., International Organization of Women Pilots, she tracked everyone down through their memberships in the Ninety-Nines. This gathering at the group's headquarters in Oklahoma City wouldn't be just for remembering; it would also be about celebrating the fact that a woman pilot — Eileen Collins — would finally be flying a ship into space.
Gene Nora invited Eileen, as well. She met the women, listened to their stories, and thanked them. Nine of the thirteen women attended the banquet. Jerrie Cobb arrived late, flying in from the Amazon. Seven of the women attended Eileen's first launch as pilot the following year. Eight of the Mercury 13 arrived for the launch when Eileen became the first commander of a spaceflight in 1999.
In 2004, journalist Martha Ackmann published The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight. The book received a lot of attention. Television news shows publicized the book and the women. Newspapers did interviews with several of the women, and a few other books followed, as well.
The Oshkosh campus, one of 20 under the University of Wisconsin umbrella, started as a teachers' college. It had long been a leader in education, establishing one of the first kindergartens and introducing practice teaching to further the studies of its students. Each year, the university holds a program for freshmen known as Odyssey, in which students explore social justice issues. In 2007, freshmen students met author Martha Ackmann and pilot Mary Wallace "Wally" Funk. It was a tale that begged to be told, and so the story of the Mercury 13 spread all over campus, inspiring everyone who heard it.
Convinced that the 13 women deserved more than a brief blitz of media attention, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh decided to honor the Mercury 13 in 2007. Once the commencement was scheduled, the word went out. Newspapers from San Francisco to Miami covered the Mercury 13. The Associated Press picked up the story, and it was published in 43 states. News channels CNN and Fox News provided coverage, as did CBS News and National Public Radio. It spread outside the United States as well, to eight countries and five continents.
The event started on Friday, May 11, with a panel discussion with the Mercury 13 women. Martha Ackmann served as moderator and, along with the eight women who could attend, told the story. Jerrie Cobb, in her trademark ponytail, said more than once that she still planned to go into space. When she acknowledged that the recognition by the University of Wisconsin was the first they had received, the audience gave the women a standing ovation.
The following morning they received honorary doctor of science degrees for their pioneering spirit. Dr. Steven Kagen, a congressman from Wisconsin, presented them with their degrees. Less than a month later, the US House of Representatives approved House Resolution 421 to honor the Mercury 13 for their service. Sponsored by Kagen, the resolution recognized the accomplishments of the 13 women who outshined and outperformed their male counterparts — but were never allowed to fly into space.
THE ASTRONAUTS WHO NEVER WERE
The space capsule shot deep into the water, turning upside down on its journey. Jerrie Cobb looked around and saw the cockpit filling up with water. Undoing her seat belt, she went to the top of the capsule, now facing down as the water gurgled in. She tried not to think of the extra weight she carried — the parachute pack and the inflatable life jacket over her clothing. Jerrie moved carefully in the close confines of the capsule. Time was of the essence — she was now completely underwater — and she didn't want her pack or any part of her getting hung up on the controls.
Easing out of the capsule, she began swimming immediately. When she broke the surface of the water, men in diving suits were there. She had saved them a trip to the bottom of the pool because she had conquered the Dilbert Dunker, a water survival test for astronaut candidates. Like some of the other testing in the third and final phase of tests, the Dilbert Dunker could only be found at the Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida.
She also found herself being fired from a cockpit in an ejection seat, throwing darts and tennis balls at a target in a constantly revolving room, and soaring to an altitude of 60,000 feet to test her flying skills while wearing a full-pressure suit. She had also flown as a passenger in a navy fighter jet — with 18 needles in her head so that her reactions to shifting gravity could be measured as the plane made loops, rolls, and dives.
Dr. R. A. Carleton, a cardiologist and navy officer in the Navy Medical Corps, had already observed Jerrie through a two-day physical and a physical fitness test. He couldn't help but admire her determination. The physical fitness test was set up for subjects taller, heavier, and with a greater muscle mass — in other words, men. Still, Jerrie did her best. When asked to do 30 sit-ups, she did 42. Although she was a former softball player who had wrestled the controls in airplanes in the worst weather conditions, she could not pull her body weight up to the chin-up bar. But when asked to scale a wall a foot taller than her five-foot-seven frame, she made it on the second try.
When the Pensacola tests were complete, she had passed. There were no more tests, only admission to astronaut training. For two years, she had gone through every test imaginable and passed them all. She knew she wasn't the only one. Twelve more women would be arriving in Pensacola in a few weeks to undergo the same tests she had. They were ready for Phase III of the "girl astronaut program."
No doubt, Jerrie often thought back to that chance walk on a Miami beach in the fall of 1959. Part of her job at Aero Design and Engineering, an aircraft manufacturer, was flying at conventions to interest potential buyers in the company's airplanes. As Jerrie and her boss, Tom Harris, talked before that day's events at the Air Force Association conference, two men who had just had a swim in the ocean were headed in their direction. She didn't know them, but Tom did. He introduced Jerrie to Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II and Brigadier General Donald Flickinger. The two men had recently been to the Soviet Union, where the talk was that the Russians were considering sending a woman into space. The idea interested both men immensely.
After the introductions, Lovelace and Flickinger said something about an airplane the Soviets were testing. Jerrie, who often hung back in conversations due to her shyness, spoke up with her opinion about the plane, which the Soviets had been having trouble with. Airplanes, after all, were something she knew about. Her intelligent comment caused the two men to ask if she was a pilot.
When this young woman of 28 explained that she had been flying for 16 years, Lovelace and Flickinger found it hard to believe. When her father had taken her for a ride at age 12 in a rebuilt, open-cockpit Waco biplane, she had fallen in love with flying. She repeatedly asked for lessons. After Jerrie promised to bring her grades up in school, her parents agreed. Her father taught her informally until she was old enough for professional lessons. On her birthdays, she would test for whatever license she was finally old enough to have. At 16, she received her private pilot's license. When she reached 18, it was a commercial license; two years later, she also had a flight instructor rating and an instrument rating.
After trying college for a year, she earned money for her own airplane by playing softball. Jerrie was ready for a career in aviation, but the problem was that nobody wanted to hire a woman pilot. She finally got a job ferrying aircraft, including military planes, to South America. It was a dangerous job with long flights and hazardous conditions. One flight landed her in jail when she touched down in Ecuador with a military bomber meant for Peru. She loved her job. After performing that hazardous job for a few years and setting some aviation records, her career options began to open up.
The two men invited Jerrie back to the Fontainebleau Hotel to talk. Lovelace was a respected physician who had focused his career on aviation medicine after training at the Mayo Clinic. He was particularly interested in medical issues involving advanced aircraft, such as the oxygen deprivation that occurs at high altitudes. Lovelace also designed the tests that the Mercury 7 astronauts had gone through at his Albuquerque clinic.
General Flickinger, trained as a surgeon, was a war hero who parachuted to plane crash sites to offer medical aid during World War II. In 1959, Flickinger served as director of research for the Air Force Air Research and Development Command.
The men told Jerrie about Project WISE (Women in Space Earliest), a proposal Flickinger wanted the air force to pursue. He had already approached NASA about it, but they had turned him down. The prevailing medical and scientific opinion of the day was that menstruation caused changes in the brain, such as being distractible and emotional and not thinking clearly. This would make women incapable of safely piloting airplanes, jets, or spacecraft. Women who had served as Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) during World War II had been grounded — not allowed to fly — when supervisors knew they were on their periods. The women pilots soon learned to keep this information to themselves, and their accident rate was less than that of their male counterparts.
Flickinger, referring to Project WISE as the "girl astronaut program," wanted to evaluate how female pilots did on the Project Mercury tests. Earlier research had already demonstrated that women tended to respond better to withstanding pain, loneliness, and extreme temperatures. Would Jerrie be interested in participating in the project? he asked.
Astronaut testing? Jerrie didn't even have to think about it. As one of the world's top pilots, she knew that the next aviation frontier was space. She agreed immediately. The men swore her to secrecy and told her they would be in touch.
Did Jerrie know that she was being checked out? If so, she probably didn't care. As winner of both the Woman of the Year in Aviation and Pilot of the Year awards from the Women's National Aeronautic Association and the National Pilots Association, she had logged more than 7,000 flight hours and established three world records: altitude, distance, and speed. She was also one of the few pilots to have received the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) Gold Wings of Achievement. Some said she was the best female pilot in the world.
Jerrie returned to Oklahoma and her job as a pilot-manager at Aero Design. The one high point of the months of waiting came when Tyndall Air Force Base honored her aviation skills and honors by letting her fly a military jet, the Delta Dagger TF-102A. She not only got to fly the jet — she broke the sound barrier in it.
Each day she went to her mailbox, hoping to find a letter from Lovelace. The letter finally arrived around Christmas. She was approved for the program! She was to report to Dr. Lovelace's clinic in February. She got busy training. Jerrie wanted to be in the best shape possible when they started the Mercury tests on her.
She ran in the morning before work, usually barefoot, in a vacant lot across the street from her home. Often she ran laps when she returned from work too. Soon she was running five miles a day and riding a stationary bike for another 20 miles. Sometimes she swam or played tennis or golf as well. She also ate protein-filled meals, including hamburgers for breakfast.
There had been another development with Flickinger's "girl astronaut program" as well. Before meeting Jerrie, he had arranged for aviation pioneer Ruth Nichols to undergo testing at the Aero Medical Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. At 58, Nichols was considered too old for the space program — by everyone but herself. Nichols went through three days of tests; many were tests Jerrie would go through in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Others, like the centrifuge, weren't readily available.
For any age, Nichols performed quite well on the tests. Anyone who knew Ruth knew that her determination to succeed was phenomenal. Nichols later told people that when she suggested that air force personnel use her test information to put a woman in space, they said, "Under no circumstances." They had only wanted to gather data about how women did in testing.
Not willing to give up, Nichols told people about the testing. When the testing was made public, the air force was afraid the publicity connected to women in astronaut training would damage the air force's reputation. Flickinger was told to pull the plug on the program. With Flickinger and the air force out of the picture, Lovelace was forced to either abandon the project or continue it privately. He chose to continue with what he referred to as the "Woman in Space Program" in letters to potential candidates.
Jerrie arrived in Albuquerque on Valentine's Day. She reported to the clinic the next day for the most thorough medical evaluation she had ever had. She was poked more times that she could count, and the X-rays soon numbered about a hundred. Strapped to a table that tilted back and forth, her heart functions were measured for 30 minutes. She pedaled on an exercise bicycle programmed for increasingly steeper hills to the point of exhaustion. Jerrie called it her "bicycle ride toward space."
By far the most uncomfortable test she had to endure was having icy water poured into her ear canal. "Almost immediately, the ceiling began to whirl and became a multiple of spinning blobs," Jerrie recalled. Ice water attacks the sense of balance and causes extreme dizziness in everyone. Doctors wanted to know how long it took a candidate to regain balance.
Excerpted from Women in Space by Karen Bush Gibson. Copyright © 2014 Karen Bush Gibson. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
PART I THE MERCURY 13,
The Astronauts Who Never Were,
PART II COSMONAUTS,
Valentina Tereshkova: First in Space,
Svetlana Savitskaya: No Apron for Her,
Elena Kondakova: Long Duration in Space,
Yelena Serova: Ready and Waiting,
PART III AMERICAN WOMEN JOIN THE SPACE RACE,
Sally Ride: First American Woman in Space,
Judith Resnik: All She Ever Wanted to Do,
Kathryn Sullivan: A Walk into History,
Shannon Lucid: A Russian Favorite,
Mae Jemison: Doctor Astronaut,
Ellen Ochoa: Career Astronaut,
Eileen Collins: Space Shuttle Commander,
Catherine "Cady" Coleman: Musical Astronaut,
Pamela Melroy: Piloting in Space,
Peggy Whitson: Space Station Commander,
Sunita Williams: Breaking Records,
Barbara Morgan: Teachers in Space,
PART IV WORLD ASTRONAUTS,
Roberta Bondar: Living a Childhood Dream,
Chiaki Mukai: Opening Doors,
Claudie André-Deshays Haigneré: French Astronaut and Soyuz Commander,
Yi Soyeon: First from Korea,
Kalpana Chawla: A Tragic End,
Liu Yang: Flying Knight in Space,
Samantha Cristoforetti: Military Pilot Astronaut,
THE FUTURE OF SPACEFLIGHT,
Online Resources for Further Reading,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews