In 1960, Dr. Randy Lovelace invited Jerrie Cobb into his private clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He recruited her as the first participant in his secret and privately funded woman in the Space program. The program aims to examine which gender was more qualified and ideal to fly into space. To prove his theory, Cobb and other women that would later join her will have to undergo the same grueling tests Lovelace Foundation had developed for NASA’s astronaut selection process.
Cobb, was a 29-year-old decorated pilot then
Dr William Randolph "Randy" Lovelace II
Dr. Lovelace was a NASA contractor who conducted official physical examinations of the Project Mercury candidates. At that time no human had traveled up to space, and though Lovelace examined male astronauts at NASA, he was particularly interested in the woman's capability for spaceflight. He believes that women on average are lighter, shorter and consume less food and oxygen than men; require lesser propulsion fuel to propel rocket to space.
Mercury 7 Astronauts
Data had shown that women are more resistant to radiation and can endure cramped spaces and withstanding prolonged isolation much better. Though it was not know how the stress of microgravity would affect the cardiovascular system on the human then but on earth, women are known to have lesser heart attacks. All these advantages are critical to the cost and feasibility of space flight.
The lack of data of what astronauts would experience in space means that Lovelace along with his team had to test everything they could think of on what zero gravity would do to the body. There are three phases of the screening program tests, that would take approximately a week to complete. The easier ones are blood work, urine test, X-rays, a four-hour eye exam, a tilt table that tested circulation and nerve reflexes test that was conducted by sending an electrical pulse to the arm.
However, some other tests were borderline invasive and torturing. To simulate vertigo, the researchers poured ice water into the subject ears for 20 seconds, this temporarily froze the inner ear, causing the Cobb eyes to shake along with the rest of her body, the researchers then start the clock to determine how quickly she could regain control.
On one of the tests, she was to swallow a 3-foot rubber tube so the stomach acids can be tested. Next up on the respiration test, Cobb had to pedal on the weighted stationary bicycle until exhausted. She would breathe into a mouthpiece that recorded the amount of oxygen she inhaled and the amount of carbon dioxide exhaled.
Nicked named by the Mercury 7 as the Vomit comet, the subject was strapped down onto the gyroscope machine and her task was to maintain control despite the machine that sent her spinning, rolling, twisting, going in all directions possible.
One of the eerie tests has Cobb confined in a coffin-like tube capsule where she wouldn’t be able to turn or bend knees.This see if she is prone to claustrophobia
Next up, to mimic the dark silence and weightless space, the subject was geared with inflated tubes under her neck and around the waist before being submerged in a tank of water. The test went on for as long as possible, ending only when the subject feels uncomfortable, claustrophobic or starting to hallucinate. Cobb's record was 10 hours.
By the end of the tests, Cobb became the first woman to successfully passed all three phrases and even surpassed male astronauts on some. Cobb became a media sensation when Lovelace announced her incredible success at the 1960 conference in Stockholm. To prove that his results and test were valid, Lovelace went on to recruit more skill female pilots to his program, calling them Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees(FLAT) which was also more commonly know Mercury 13. The candidate ranges from a 21-year-old flight instructor Wally Funk to 39-year-old Janey Hart, a mother of eight and wife of Senator Philip Hart.
After the completion of the phrase 1 physical examination, these women decided to set a date to gather at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine so they can undergo the advanced aeromedical examinations using military equipment and jet aircraft. However thing doesn’t go as planned, bad news arrived in the telegrams a few days before, abruptly canceling the testing once the Navy learned that his program was not sponsored by NASA.
Cobb and Jackie Cochran testified before a congressional subcommittee in July 1962, fighting for the resumed of the program.
“We seek, only, a place in our nation’s space future without discrimination,” said Cobb,
NASA required that all astronauts have an engineering degree and a graduate from military jet test piloting programs. An impossible requirement to be met by women at that time for the military doesn’t permit women to be test pilots of the jet plane. Further, NASA representatives George Low and Astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter testified that the women could not qualify as astronaut candidates. Though the Subcommittee were sympathies with their arguments, no action was taken.
Despite the Mercury 13 struggles and efforts to appeal and restart Lovelace’s Woman in Space Program, it was a short-lived one. These outstanding female pilots of Mercury 13 never saw space but they were no doubt the trailblazer for the future of women in space. The first accomplishment was seen when Astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman going to space in 1983. And finally, in 1995, the Mercury 13 women's dream was fulfilled when Eileen Collins became the first female pilot to become an astronaut and pilot the Space Shuttle during STS-63 up into space.
Seven members of the Mercury 13 attend a 1995 shuttle launch. Left to Right: Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman
Cover image by Getty images/Netflix
Words by Buranee Soh