Forty years ago this July, in 1969, NASA launched Apollo 11, the first manned mission landing on the moon. As history books tell us, with that mission came “one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” What textbooks omit is the Mercury 13, a group of women who endured the same rigorous testing as male astronauts.
Tanya Lee Stone’s Almost Astronauts is the story of the Mercury 13, a group of women who shared the same dream as their male counterparts: to voyage into space.
In 1959, the chairman of NASA’s Life Sciences Committee, Randolph Lovelace, wanted to prove women were as capable as men. One of the developers of the NASA testing program, he believed not only could women perform as well as men under the intense exercises, but that women would save NASA money, due to females’ smaller size and lighter weights. Together with the air force’s Brigadier General Donald Flickinger, they formed Project WISE (Women in Space Earliest) and sought the first candidate.
Jerrie Cobb fit the bill. Having logged more than 7,000 hours in the air, the twenty-eight year old was an accomplished pilot, and could scarcely believe the offer to be the first female astronaut test subject. She said yes.
Cobb helped Flickinger and Lovelace scout other suitable women for testing, but WISE was over after the Air Force expressed little interest in women testing. Undaunted, Lovelace and Cobb continued the mission, planning to present a thorough case to NASA.
February 14, 1960 brought the first round of testing. Blood tests, countless x-rays, the vertigo testing, etc, all at the same intensity as those administered to the male astronauts. In an isolation tank, Cobb, broke all previous records, remaining in the tank for nine hours and forty minutes. Her second round of testing followed, at Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Pensacola, Florida.
Other women began volunteering for the program, once word of Cobb’s participation got out, thanks to a story in Life magazine. They entered the first round of testing, and then the call came. There would be no second round.
What followed seems straight out of the movies – a hastily scrawled “Let’s stop this now” note by Lyndon Johnson, buried in files for over nearly forty years, congressional hearings, and a damaging testimony by a noted female.
Stone’s approach to the obscure story of the Mercury 13 is refreshing, with the accounts of historical events told in an informative, yet never dull tone. She places the experiences of the women in context, discussing the media depiction of females at the time (I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show etc), and offers anecdotes of the trials the women endured as female pilots. She asks the reader to imagine themselves in the scenarios the women were placed within, and weaves in her own reactions to uncovering the story, piece by piece. Throughout the text, there’s a multitude of photographs. Historical documents, such as Johnson’s note, telegrams, political cartoons, and more fill the pages. But the book doesn’t stop at the Mercury 13, but traces the social advancement of women with Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Sally Ride, and other women in flight.
Almost Astronauts is an important book, not only for the rich and relatively unknown history it contains, but as a reflection of how far we’ve come in women’s rights. After finishing Almost Astronauts, you’ll want a movie, a statue, just something to commemorate the indelible mark these women left, and most of all, you’ll want to share it with a girl (or boy) who harbors big dreams of their own.
Visit TanyaStone.com for a poetic tribute to the Mercury 13 women, video of the author on CSPAN-Book TV and more.
Copy for review provided by the publisher.
Title: Almost Astronauts
Date: February 2009
Format: Hardback & Paperback