Fifty-five years ago this month, the first of a group of female aviators was invited to undergo rigorous challenges to become astronauts – and on some tests, they outperformed the men. These elite women became the Mercury 13.
“I was one of the very active women pilots at the time,” explains Sarah Ratley, one of the women chosen. “Many of us had dreams of being in the space program.”
Aviation was very much a man’s world at that time, and the female pilots had already needed to push past considerable barriers in their pursuit of flight. “I started flying while in high school. I paid for part of college [by] flight instructing and commercial flying. I continued working in aviation after college while being employed full-time in engineering,” says Ratley, who also held a degree in mathematics with minors in physics and chemistry.
Some scientists believed that because the average woman was smaller and lighter than a man, their build could make them better potential candidates to travel into space and cope in the cramped conditions.
NASA had not publicly expressed interest in sending women into space, so testing on the female astronauts began under private funding, spearheaded by Dr William Lovelace, who had been involved in evaluating male astronauts.
The 13 would-be astronauts also included Jerrie Cobb, Bernice Steadman, Janey Hart, Jerri Truhill, Rhea Woltman, Jan and Marion Dietrich, Myrtle Cagle, Gene Nora Jessen, Jean Hixson, Wally Funk, and Irene Leverton. Some of the group had come from the humblest beginnings to claim their status as elite pilots.
Testing was eventually canceled, and despite protests from some of the women and a public hearing in 1962, the answer was still no. At the time NASA required all astronauts to be test pilots, which was also something no woman was allowed to do.