Grounded: Why Thirteen Women Never Made It To Space

From 1959-1961, thirteen women passed all tests necessary to become astronauts, but were never allowed to go into space. But were they barred because of discrimination, or their own lack of experience?

According to Brandon Keim of Wired, nineteen women enrolled in the Women in Space Program (WISP), which began in 1959. Its founder, Randy Lovelace, reasoned that women might actually make better astronauts than men, since they were lighter, less prone to heart attacks, and supposedly "better-suited for the claustrophobic isolation of space" (we're sure Betty Friedan could've made a joke about the claustrophobic life of the 1950s housewife preparing her for space travel). Thirteen of the nineteen passed all the tests given at the time to male astronauts, with four scoring as high as any man (their results are available in PDF). Apparently bearing out Lovelace's theory, women did especially well with sensory deprivation tests. Though scientists had previously assumed no one could undergo sensory deprivation for more than six hours without hallucinating, WISP trainee Jerrie Cobb successfully lay in a completely dark tank of cold water for 9 hours and 40 minutes. Astronaut John Glenn's sensory deprivation test, for comparison, involved sitting in a dim room for just three hours. He even had a pen and paper with him, presumably so he could make some awesome pig drawings.

Despite their performance, the WISP women never went to space. Some NASA officials worried that menstruation would impair their skills (a popular concern among those who have never menstruated). But others wanted all astronauts to have experience flying experimental military aircraft — something women couldn't do, since they weren't allowed in the Air Force. Was this a valid reason for keeping the WISP women grounded? In a EurekAlert press release on the topic, Donna Krupa writes that Jerrie Cobb "held numerous world aviation records for speed, distance and altitude, and had logged more than 10,000 hours of flight time." John Glenn had the most flight experience of all Mercury 7 astronauts — 5,100 hours. By this measure, Cobb might seem to be more qualified.

Wired commenter JimO begs to differ:

[Astronauts] were being recruited to fly into the most hazardous environment known to humankind, where deadly failures and human errors could overtake them at any second.

From Eisenhower on down, the thinking was that people who had already been through such pressures - who had seen fellow pilots die from such threats - had demonstrated the mental tenacity to think their way through such terrors (about a third of pilots engaged in test programs would die). Bluntly, the women pilots, however skilled they were with the aircraft they were allowed to fly, hadn't been subjected to such a threat level - enough of them had not died. As individuals, how they would react to the predictable - and unpredictable!! - hazards of space flight could not be determined from their flying experience or from any totally-safe earthside testing process or make-believe walk-outable simulation.

While the requirement that a candidate face death before becoming an astronaut certainly adds a level of derring-do and machismo to the whole enterprise, I'd be curious to see if there's any research showing that "watching fellow pilots die" actually improves reaction time, calm in a crisis, or any concrete mental quality necessary for successful space flight. It's also worth pointing out that the life of the average woman in society is pretty dangerous, and that being constantly on the alert against sexual assault, while not the same as being in combat, might well improve some women's "mental tenacity." All that aside, JimO's comment seems to encapsulate the thinking that got WISP canceled in 1961 — no matter how many tests the women aced, there had to be some way they weren't as good as men.

Image via Wired.

Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: NASA's Lost Female Astronauts [Wired]
A Woman In Space [EurekAlert]