Seeing stars through a glass ceiling

In 1960, NASA thought women might make better astronauts

From Freud with his plaintive "What does a woman want?" to pop psychologist John Gray's claim that "men are from Mars, women are from Venus," many attempts have been made to distinguish the desires of men and women. In "The Mercury 13," a lively account of the little-known attempt to qualify women as astronauts in the early '60s, Martha Ackmann argues that women want and have always wanted the same thing men do: a chance to compete.

More specifically, these 13 women wanted a chance to compete for a ride into space. The participants were summoned to New Mexico in 1960 by Dr. W. Randolph Lovelace II, a NASA consultant who had administered physical tests to the Mercury 7 male astronauts. Ackmann limns each of these heroines as briefly and concisely as a soldier in a World War II movie: the fabulously named Wally Funk is the youthful dreamer, Jerrie Cobb the dedicated leader, Jerri Sloan the woman who has to get around the objections of her hard-drinking husband.

Women would consume less oxygen, and their lighter weight, the theory went, would be less of a drag on takeoff, both key concerns as NASA worked to beat the Soviets in the "space race."

While women were desired for their female qualities, they were also kept at arm's length with trumped-up complications. Women could not be tested for high-altitude flight, said the Air Force, because there were no partial pressure suits in their size. Here and elsewhere when commenting on misguided prejudices, Ackmann employs a light touch that reminds us of the context of this period: "In a way, the Air Force response sounded like a 'wife joke' offered up by some tired comedian on the Ed Sullivan Show. Why couldn't women be astronauts? Because they had nothing to wear."

In 1961, when the first two phases of testing were complete, participants awaited instructions to move on to the third phase, flight simulation. Instead, they were summarily dismissed via curt telegrams due to mounting pressure from several sources.

It was then, Ackmann points out, that the issue shifted. The women no longer had to prove their physical and psychological fitness for space. "They now had to convince NASA that women had a right to be astronauts." Cobb began to lobby publicly for the cause and eventually met with Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who feigned sympathy, but later cancelled the program with a handwritten notation that read, "Lets Stop This Now!"

Ackmann's even-handed style serves particularly well in describing what happened when the details of the project (which had been kept so hush-hush that it lacked an official name) fell under public scrutiny. She shows admirable restraint in allowing the circumstances to speak for themselves rather than stooping to sarcasm, which must have been tempting when describing a New York congressman, Victor Anfuso, and NASA's George Low affably agreeing at a public hearing that there was no discrimination against women in the field of aerospace engineering. In another scene to cringe at, John Glenn explains that keeping women earthbound "gets back to the way our social order is organized."

Even the press gets its due when she describes a Dallas Times Herald science writer pleading with Lyndon Johnson, "Let them vote. Let them wear pants. Let them shoot pool. But please, Mr. Vice President, don't let them get into space."

None of the Mercury 13 ever got into space. The 11 surviving members of the original 13 did, however, travel to Cape Canaveral in 1999 to be present when Eileen Collins took off as the first female commander of a spacecraft.

One can imagine that Freud, if not John Gray, would have diagnosed envy of one sort or another in the stymied group that sat on the bleachers as the space shuttle Columbia, woman at the helm, flew into the stratosphere. Ackmann, though, emphasizes their shared pride and power instead. The scene provides an emotional coda to a work of nonfiction as ambitious as its subjects.

Natalie Danford contributes frequently to Publishers Weekly and is series editor for 'Best New American Voices' (Harvest/Harcourt).

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