Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream
Tanya Lee Stone
They had the right stuff. They defied the prejudices of the time. And they blazed a trail for generations of women to follow.
What does it take to be an astronaut? Excellence at flying, courage, intelligence, resistance to stress, top physical shape — any checklist would include these. But when America created NASA in 1958, there was another unspoken rule: you had to be a man. Here is the tale of thirteen women who proved that they were not only as tough as the toughest man but also brave enough to challenge the government. They were blocked by prejudice, jealousy, and the scrawled note of one of the most powerful men in Washington. But even though the Mercury 13 women did not make it into space, they did not lose, for their example empowered young women to take their place in the sky, piloting jets and commanding space capsules. ALMOST ASTRONAUTS is the story of thirteen true pioneers of the space age.
had “an equivalent experience in flying.” So far, Cobb and Hart had been well spoken, in command of their facts. You might think they were winning. But everything was about to change. For there was an actor in this whole drama who had not yet come on stage. This was her moment. During the questioning, a woman had entered the room. Blond, well dressed, and polished. Her entrance was hard to miss. Hart and Cobb had been heard. It was now time for this third witness to speak. Jerrie Cobb Isn’t
identity behind. When Bessie Pittman moved to New York City in 1929, she became Jacqueline Cochran and never looked back. Jackie Cochran was a person who would do just about anything to make the world fit her sense of what it should be. And she did not think women should go into space unless she figured prominently in the plan. Does Jackie Cochran’s attitude reflect something about women in general that made this issue so personal, so emotional? No. In fact, if anyone was blinded by prejudice, it
Women in their proper place, supporting their menfolk, keeping the home fires burning. Of course, these images did not represent all women—especially after World War II. In the 1930s, as many Americans struggled to make a living, most white Americans believed that women shouldn’t work unless they had to, shouldn’t take jobs away from the men. Certainly, that did not apply to all — African-American women, for example, especially in the South, often worked for white families, and the poorest
it headed toward the new decade, the 1960s. The other two plans had more scientific goals in mind. Look thought that showing a woman going through some of the astronaut testing would make an interesting magazine story. And NASA cooperated. They allowed a top-notch pilot named Betty Skelton to operate an orbital-flight simulator — a mock spacecraft cockpit. She was then spun around in a centrifuge, a machine that spins a pilot around and around at high speed, preparing him or her for strong
of History: Mercury 13: The Secret Astronauts. 130 SOURCE NOTES Photography Credits p. i, ii–iii NASA/Kennedy Space Center (NASA/KSC) pp. vi–vii, viii–ix © Image Farm Inc. pp. x, 3, 4, 5 NASA/Kennedy Space Center (NASA/KSC) p. 6 NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center (NASA/MSFC) p. 8 Courtesy of NASA p. 9 The National Archives p. 10 The Woman’s Collection, Texas Woman’s University p. 11 Courtesy of NASA p. 12 Courtesy of Betty Skelton p. 13 Courtesy of the International Women’s Air & Space Museum