Promised the Moon: The Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race [Hardcover ed.] 1568582757, 9781568582757

In 1959, the doctor who supervised NASA's astronaut selection concluded that women might fare better in space than

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Promised the Moon: The Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race [Hardcover ed.]
 1568582757, 9781568582757

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PROMISED THE,

the UNTOLD

STORY of the FIRST

WOMEN in THE SPACE

RACE STEPHANIE NOLEN

$22.95

Stephanie Nolen heard a story about Jerrie Cobb, and she couldn't let it go: Cobb, a worldrecord-setting pilot and a woman, was recruited in 1959 to take the astronaut tests. At the time, the United States was losing the space race. The Soviets had larger, more powerful rockets, and engineers at NASA thought women—smaller and lighter—might be the answer to their problems. Women were also thought to be more tolerant of isolation and pain. Randy Lovelace, chair of NASA’s Life Sciences Committee and the doctor who supervised the selection of NASA’s Mercury astronauts, and Donald Flickinger, an air force brigadier general and pioneer in aviation medicine, came up with the plan for a woman-in-space program. They tested Jerrie Cobb, and she excelled on the same battery of tests that her male counterparts took. She endured time in an isolation tank and spun through powerful G-forces. Lovelace recruited additional female pilots for the tests, and twelve performed exceptionally. Stephanie Nolen tracked down all eleven of the surviving “Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees.’’ From the FLATs, Nolen gets the firsthand story of those exciting early days of the space race. But the thrill was short-lived. The thirteen women who were thought to be prime astronaut material were grounded in 1961 when the woman-in-space program was abruptly and mysteriously cancelled. Until now, the FLATs never knew why. During a time when a woman in space was regarded as “ninety pounds of

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PROMISED THE THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE FIRST WOMEN IN THE SPACE RACE STEPHANIE NOLEN

FOUR WALLS EIGHT WINDOWS NEW YORK/LONDON

SOMERSET CO.

Copyright © 2002 Stephanie Nolen Published in the United States by Four Walls Eight Windows 39 West 14th Street New York, NY 10011 http://www.4w8w.com First published in Canada by Penguin Books Canada Ltd. First U.S. printing June 2003 All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a database or other retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, by any means, including mechani¬ cal, electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data: Nolen, Stephanie. Promised the moon : the untold story of the first women in the space race / by Stephanie Nolen, p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 1-56858-275-7 (he.) 1. Women astronauts—United States—Biography. 2. Women in astronautics—Political aspects. 3. Feminism. 4. United States. National Aeronautics and Space Administration—History. 5. Space race. 6. Sex discrimination against women. I. Title. TL789.85.A1N65 2003 629.45’0082'0973—dc21

2003052770

Printed in Canada 10

987654321

For my grandmother, Helen G. Amy Webb, with love

Were very grateful, because now we have a future. —The Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees to Lt. Col. Eileen Collins, shortly before she became the first woman to pilot the space shuttle on February 3, 1993

Im very grateful, because now I have a past. —Lt. Col. Collins to the FLATs

CONTENTS

Introduction ix UNLIMITED VISIBILITY 1 AVIATRIX 14 JACKIE'S GIRLS 31 IN THE COCKPIT 51 INSTANT HEROES 69 UNIT ONE, FEMALE 86 "I'VE GOT TO FLY" 113 NORMAL WOMEN 148 FELLOW LADY ASTRONAUT TRAINEES 166 OUR RIGHTFUL PLACE 202 ABANDONED 247 "LET'S STOP THIS NOW!" 278 Epilogue 308 Bibliography 332 Acknowledgments 343 Index 345

INTRODUCTION

Jerri Sloan in her pink flying suit with her pink plane, as the Most Active Woman in America, 1964.

Th is is the story I heard. Jerrie Cobb was in the heart of the Amazon jungle. It was a summer night and the air was thick and dense and hot. She lay in a rough woven hammock strung between a wingtip and a door of her twin-engine Islander. She looked up and tried, as she had a thousand times before, to count the stars. Then there was a crackle on the radio. She scrambled into the IX

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cockpit and fiddled with the tiny dials, trying to bring in the voice. It was a priest at a missionary station a couple of hundred miles away, calling with news he thought Jerrie would want to hear. It was July 20, 1969. A few hours earlier, two American men, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, had walked on the moon. Jerrie leaned out of the cockpit and pulled herself up onto the wing. Arms in the air, she did a little dance of joy, from the tip of one wing to the end of the other.

“Vaya con Dios, ” she whispered, looking at the night sky. And then she looked down at the ground around her, and she spoke again. “It should have been me.”

That story made me shiver. Jerrie Cobb was a pilot, a worldrecord-setting pilot, when she was recruited to take the astronaut tests at the dawn of the space race. The United States was losing to the Soviets, who were clearly much closer to the goal of putting a person in space. The Americans had smaller rockets than the Russians, and they couldn’t launch a man. Then engi¬ neers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration began to think women—smaller, lighter women—might be the answer to their problems. They tested Jerrie, and she excelled. So they recruited more female pilots, and found a dozen who were prime astronaut material. Those women were all set for space when NASA abandoned them. Dumped them, sent them home, and they never knew why. It was a gripping story. But as I would come to learn, it wasn’t quite a true story. I first heard it from an author I interviewed in my work as a reporter for the Globe and Mail. She mentioned, in passing, uthose first female astronauts in the early sixties.” I was startled. Female astronauts before Sally Ride? I know women’s stories

Introduction

XI

frequently don’t make the history books, but how could I possi¬ bly have missed the first female astronauts? I looked for a book. There wasn’t one. I looked for magazine articles, newspaper interviews. The files were painfully slim. If America once had secret female astronauts, they were still unknown. But I couldn’t get their story out of my head. Over and over I heard Jerrie Cobb’s voice. It should have been me. So I went hunting. I tracked down Jerrie, and she agreed to tell me her story—but Jerrie, as I would come to learn, still keeps secrets of her own. One by one I found the other women. Feeling a little awkward, and very young, I told them I was a Canadian newspaper reporter curious about an event that happened almost half a century before. I wanted to hear their story—and I wanted to tell it. What unfolded in the months that followed was not one story, but many. There were more versions of the events than there were would-be astronauts. And by the time I had knit the various threads together I realized that even the women themselves did not know what really happened in 1961. In the end, they learned that from me. The story I first heard wasn’t quite true, but the real events are every bit as dramatic: a bitter clash of personalities between powerful women; masterful public performances by American heroes with an agenda of their own; a hush-hush experiment by a pioneering scientist who trammeled social conventions to satisfy a curious mind; and a vicious emotional outburst at the highest level of government. In telling this story, it is important to summon the shape of American society in the 1960s—a landscape so different from the one in which we now live that is hard to believe it existed only forty years ago. Talking to the Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees (as they once were known), I was continuously amazed. For someone who grew up in the era when a space shuttle launch

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XII

barely made the evening news, the womens stories of the early space race were intoxicating. They described the way they watched each rocket launch, holding their breath and willing it to fly, willing their country to pull this off. To survive: because that’s what the space race was about then, the very survival of the country. I came to see that their story was a fascinating example of the subtle interplay between technological achievement and political propaganda. It was only forty years ago, and yet the world these women described was almost impossible for a woman my age to imagine. Needing your husband’s signature to buy a car. (Needing a husband.) Having the boss chase you round the desk each after¬ noon. Being turned down, job after job, because it wouldn’t “look right to have a girl” in the manager’s office or at the front desk. And no discrimination laws to turn to. When we look back at the pictures of women in the fifties and sixties, it all looks a bit quaint—the beehive hairdos and the sweater sets. And it is tempting to see the story of these “first women astronauts” as a curious historical footnote: as The Right Stuffvery nearly cast with female players. But above all else, the story of these extraordinary women, who ignored traditional roles, defied convention and broke through barriers, is a tale of the painful, destructive experience of being caught on the cusp of social change. These women were able to see the future but could not, despite their ambition, their passion and their talent, make it present. Jerrie Cobb is still in the jungle. I don’t know if it should have been she who stepped out on the moon that July night—but I now know she never got the chance to prove it.

Stephanie Nolen Toronto, June 2002

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