April 1, 2020

Review: Almost Astronauts by Tanya Lee Stone.

Chances are you’ve never heard of the “Mercury 13.” OK, we all know about the Mercury 7 via movies such as the Right Stuff and an endless stream of Discovery channel documentaries, but there also exists another little known but fascinating tale of the early American manned space program; the contributions of women. Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream, by Tanya Lee Stone, follows the saga of 13 women who under went the candidate selection process to become astronauts. As this month is the anniversary of cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova’s flight in 1963, this book adds an enlightening chapter to the story of women in space.

Indeed, As we write this, Canadian astronaut Julie Payette is currently due to board the International Space Station in low earth orbit. (That is, if those pesky H+ ions cooperate and let STS-127 off the pad!) A veteran shuttle astronaut, she is also chief of the Canadian Space Agencies‘ astronaut core. But as she noted in a recent NASA TV interview , The concept of becoming an astronaut wasn’t really open to her as a young girl growing up in the 60′s. Unsung heroines such as Jerrie Cobb of the Mercury 13 may never have went into space, but never the less paved the way by opening the door just a crack.

There were several practical reasons that NASA initially considered putting a woman in space first; women are generally smaller in stature, and consume less food and oxygen than men, a plus in the cramped Mercury space capsule where every pound of mass carries a premium in fuel. They also surpassed the men in several of the grueling selection tests; Jerrie Cobb lasted almost 10 hours in the isolation tank, a vat in a darkened room that the occupant floated in total darkness for hours. Audio and visual hallucinations were often reported as the norm. Some of the tests were bizarre by today’s standards; shoving a length of rubber hose (OK, we don’t know why, either!) down the candidate’s esophagus, or deliberately injecting freezing water into the subjects’ inner ear to induce vertigo were just some of the medieval tests the subjects had to endure. Interestingly, the women also complained less during tests than the men! They would patiently endure, getting pushed to the breaking point, and then endure again.

The History Channel’s treatment of the Mercury 13.

But in the end, the cultural prejudices of the era won out over practicality. After passing every test, the Mercury 13 were quietly sent packing. The argument by NASA at the time was that they met every requirement but one; they were not qualified test pilots. Of course, this was circular logic; women at the time were not allowed into the test pilot program! Jeri Cobb and Jane Hart fought this to the last, arguing before congressional hearings in 1962 that while they were not certified test pilots, they were indeed seasoned and skilled aviators. Ultimately, like so many other cultural revolutions of the 60′s, NASA and the government missed the boat. The Russians nabbed another first on Tereshkova’s flight, and it wasn’t until 1976 that the test pilot requirement was modified. Of course, at that point the manned space program was in the doldrums; the Apollo program had ended, and the Shuttle was still on the drawing board. Skylab and the Soyuz-Apollo linkup were the sole missions flown until STS-1 in 1981. The advent of the Mission Specialist position on the shuttle crew opened the door to non-pilot types; Sally Ride finally became the first American woman in space on June 18th aboard STS-7.

Although NASA was finally catching up to the cultural mores of the time, the spirit of the original Mercury 13 was captured in the sediment ” We want to see women driving the bus, not sitting in back!” in this sense, the vision of the Mercury 13 was not truly realized until the flight of Shuttle commander Eileen Collins aboard the shuttle Columbia STS-93 in 1999. Incidentally, that mission also deployed the ground-breaking Chandra X-Ray Observatory as well.

Written to target an adolescent audience, Almost Astronauts is thoroughly researched and vividly illustrated and serves as a fascinating glimpse at a little known tale of the infancy of the Space Age.

Has NASA learned its lesson? One would like to think that the playing field is truly equal these days… will the first person to set foot on Mars be a woman? Or how ’bout the first commander of a Lunar Moon Base? Assuredly, there are still many firsts out there to be had!


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