Saturday, October 24, 2009

Lost In Space Race: Female Pilots

By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY

Women had the "right stuff," too, back in the '60s. But the data on their performance tests were buried in the Mad Men era, and it was two decades before there was an American female astronaut.

A report in the current Advances in Physiology Education reveals that the "Mercury 13" members of the private Woman in Space Program of the early 1960s did about as well as, or better than, male candidates identically tested.

"Some of these women were told they were as good as men. The data show it was true," says lead author Kathy Ryan of the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

But the 13 women who passed the astronaut tests at Lovelace saw their chance at "one giant step for womankind" canceled in 1961. "I quit my job teaching flight instruction, and … there I was, unemployed," says Gene Nora Jessen, 72, of Boise.

The push for female astronauts began in 1959 when clinic chief W. Randolph Lovelace II and Gen. Donald Flickinger of the U.S. Air Force began a program to test female pilots as astronaut candidates. "They reasoned women were smaller and breathed less oxygen," Ryan says. When the Air Force canceled the effort later that year, Lovelace's clinic took over privately, running the same physical tests on 19 female pilots that 32 male candidates underwent. Of the women, 13 passed (68%); of the men, 18 passed (56%).

The top four women tested as fit as the Mercury 7 astronauts, Ryan says. One in particular, Jerrie Cobb, "really had the right stuff." Cobb passed all tests and far exceeded Mercury 7's average in flight time and endurance.

Almost none of the data were published. But one of Ryan's co-authors, Jack Loeppsky of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Albuquerque, had studied with one of the testing physicians and kept the data on aerobic capacity. When Ryan became interested in the subject, Loeppsky produced the data.

"If we had access to the data, we'd have known they were quite capable," says Margaret Weitekamp of the National Air & Space Museum, author of Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America's First Women In Space Program. It was never an official NASA program, but the agency embraced the Mercury 13, crediting them with paving the way for others.

Jessen, who is on a tour for her book, The Fabulous Flight of the Three Musketeers, harbors no grudges: "It was wonderful to be part of that time."

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