The Women Who Missed the Space Race

Several of the “Mercury 13" in 1995. Image via NASA.
Several of the “Mercury 13" in 1995. Image via NASA.

One especially cruel twist of the 1950s was that many women were allowed just enough latitude to get their hopes up, before ramming into the social constraints of the era. Go to college, but for the Mrs. Get a job, but you can’t be a staff writer, only a researcher. Pass the same tests as the Mercury 7 astronauts, but you never get to go to space.


At the Houston Press, writer Dianna Wray tells the stories of the so-called “Mercury 13,” a group of hot-shot female pilots with impressive aviation credentials who were selected by one Dr. Randolph Lovelace for an experimental program—funded by a woman named Jackie Cochran, who was both wealthy and herself an experienced pilot—that would subject them to the ruthless, invasive battery of tests for astronauts, to see how women did. They did very, very well—just as well as men. Their stories are impressive and a reminder that women didn’t quit flying between Amelia Earhart and Sally Ride:

At age 12, Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb persuaded her father to teach her to fly, zipping over Wichita Falls, Texas, in a two-seater made of cloth and aluminum poles. At 18 she held a commercial pilot’s license. By the time she was 29 she was a flight instructor, had ferried dozens of army surplus planes to Europe and South America, had amassed more than 10,000 hours of flying time and had broken three world records for flight.

But it was never officially a NASA program, and they couldn’t even use Navy facilities for the second phase of tests after officials checked in with the space agency. There was a brief attempt to revive the program, and Jerrie Cobb and Janey Hart (who also happened to be married to a Senator) testified before a House subcommittee. As did John Glenn.

Glenn was a national hero, and his words carried enormous weight. He argued that testing women or doing anything that took funding away from the main mission to go to the moon was a waste of time and resources. “I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized,” Glenn told the subcommittee. “It is just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.”

And that, unfortunately, was that.

Wray writes that all the women reacted in different ways to the disappointing of missing out on the era’s single biggest, most spectacular scientific adventure. Janey Hart put it behind her and got involved with the women’s rights movement; Wally Funk has never stopped hoping, going so far as to book a ride with Virgin Galactic. (She’s still waiting.) Yet another eloquent refutation of the idea that women have just magically self-selected themselves out of professions dominated by men and and a testimony to what could have been, the piece is worth reading in full at The Houston Press.


Update: This article originally misspelled the name of author Dianna Wray; we regret the error.

Senior Editor at Jezebel, specializing in books, royals, romance novels, houses, history, and the stories we tell about domesticity and femininity. Resident Windsor expert.


Rando Calrissian

One suggested change...

One especially cruel twist of the 1950s forever was that many women were allowed just enough latitude to get their hopes up, before ramming into the social constraints of the era.