Right Stuff, Wrong Time: Mercury 13 Women Wait

The nostalgic glow that has permeated so much of the recent news coverage of John Glenn obscures a past that is tarnished by denied opportunity and discrimination. While Mr. Glenn's courage in being hurtled into orbit at his age is laudable, NASA's sexism in the early 1960s certainly is not. No one understands both the space program's courage and discrimination better than Jerrie Cobb.

Ms. Cobb was poised to become the country's first woman in space 37 years ago. Long before the name Sally Ride was forever yoked with female firsts, Cobb was plucked from the ranks of the nation's top women aviators to be considered for a trip into space. But just as she was slated to begin final astronaut testing, NASA changed its mind. It seemed Cobb had the right stuff but it was the wrong time.

At age 67, Cobb is still waiting, wondering if Glenn's Discovery mission will open doors for her long-awaited trip into space.

Most Americans are surprised to learn of the Mercury 13 - a group of top-flight women pilots selected for secret astronaut screening in 1961. After an independent medical research group tested Glenn and the rest of the male astronaut candidates, it wanted to find out if women could measure up to similar mental and physical tests.

Cobb and 12 other women were called to Albuquerque for the trials. They left hard-won aviation jobs and scrounged up money to pay their way to New Mexico for a chance to be spun, submerged, poked, and prodded through 75 rigorous experiments.

The tests, while similar, were not identical to the men's. Researchers raised the bar for women. No test demonstrated this double standard better than the "dog dip." For nine hours and 40 minutes Cobb was submerged in sensory isolation tank of warm water. There, without sound, smells, or stimulation of any kind, Cobb was tested to see if she could maintain her calm and fight off hallucinations. She did. The men's sensory isolation test lasted but three hours and was conducted not in the tank but in a silent room. Cobb and the other women did well on all tests. Perhaps too well.

Faced with unexpected results, NASA had to determine if women would compete with men for a chance to be launched into space. Before Cobb and the other women entered final testing, NASA simply told them to go home.

Deeply disappointed, Cobb was able to force Congress in July 1962 to hold hearings on official qualifications for astronauts.

The lone voice in support of the women, Rep. James Fulton of Pennsylvania, declared "maybe we shouldn't be talking about keeping women out of space ... women under extreme conditions have risen and have really either done as well as a man or better."

Chairman Victor Anfuso banged the day's hearings to adjournment by mocking the congressman. "Mr Fulton is a bachelor and he thinks women are out of this world."

Day two brought Glenn and fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter to the hearing room. After plaudits and autographs, the two were asked what qualifications future astronauts should have.

"If we could find any women that demonstrated they have better qualifications [than men], we would welcome them with open arms," Glenn stated.

The final day of hearings was cancelled; Cobb was again told to go home.

Congress supported NASA's recommendation that all future astronauts be drawn from the ranks of military jet test pilots - a group that did not include women until 1972.

Cobb went off to South America, where she focused the next decades of her life on flying medical supplies and personnel into the Amazon rainforest. Her work to sustain the land and its indigenous people earned a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 1981.

Now Cobb has petitioned NASA once again for her shot at space. So far she has received a cool response: NASA has no plans to involve additional senior citizens in upcoming launches.

Just as NASA has learned this week that nostalgia can be a powerful tool in reviving public interest in the space program, so too can nostalgia be used to perpetuate mistakes of the past.

When we embrace the heroics of the 1960s space program, we embrace its undeniable sexism as well.

But it need not be that way. In seriously considering Jerrie Cobb for a future flight, NASA has a chance not only to replay history, but to redress it as well.

This look to the past could make a more powerful statement to the future.

* Martha Ackmann is a women's studies professor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass.

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