Bethesda MD (SPX) Oct 07, 2009
In the early years of the "space race" (1957-1975) two men sought to test a scientifically simple yet culturally complicated theory: that women might be innately better suited for space travel than men. In 1960 the thought of a woman in space was a radical one, and justifiably so. On the ground 75% of American women did not work outside the home and females were banned from military flight service altogether.
In marriage, wives were required to have their husband's permission to take out a bank loan, buy property, or purchase large household goods such as a refrigerator. Despite the social odds, a Harvard-educated surgeon and a U.S. Air Force General sought to determine if, from a purely practical perspective, women were suitable for space flight.
The latest look at the intersection of physiology, spaceflight and politics is captured in a new article entitled "A Forgotten Moment in Physiology: The Lovelace Woman in Space Program (1960-1962)," written by Kathy Ryan, Jack Loeppky and Donald Kilgore. Their article appears in the September edition of Advances in Physiology. The APS has been an integral part of the scientific discovery process since it was founded in 1887.
The Mercury 7
Individually, the Mercury members made six flights between 1961 and 1963 of which two would reach space, defined as 62 miles above earth. In 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth.
Two Men's Vision for Space
At the time, aircraft cabins were not pressurized which lead to hypoxia-induced errors and accidents by pilots. Upon leaving Mayo he established the private Lovelace Foundation for Medical Education and Research, which received government contracts throughout the '50s to conduct aerospace research.
Lovelace was also among the team of experts who developed the physiological, medical and psychological criteria by which astronaut candidates were assessed and selected, including the Mercury 7 team.
General Donald Flickinger, Air Force chief of bioastronautics at the Air Force Air Research and Development Command (ARDC), was a member of the NASA Special Advisory Committee on Life Sciences and a friend and oft-time collaborator with Lovelace. In 1959 Flickinger established the Woman in Space Earliest (WISE) program at ARDC. Thereafter, he and Lovelace began to contemplate plans for testing women in space.
Their proposition was based purely on physiology and practicality. They recognized that women's lighter weights would reduce the amount of propulsion fuel being used by the rocket's load and that women would require less auxiliary oxygen than men.
They knew that women had fewer heart attacks than men and their reproductive system was thought to be less susceptible to radiation than a male's. Finally, preliminary data suggested that women could outperform men in enduring cramped spaces and prolonged isolation.
The Mercury 13 Women
The women underwent the identical tests that the male candidates had undergone. In the end, 68% of the women passed with "no medical reservations" compared to 56% of the men. The 13 females who passed were known as the Mercury 13. They were Bernice "Bea" Steadman, Janey Hart, Geraldine "Jerri" Sloan Truhill, Rhea Allison Woltman, Sarah Lee Gorelick Ratley, Jan Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Myrtle Cagle, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Jessen, Jean Hixson, Wally Funk and Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb.
Lost and Found: Data on Female Applicants
For the first time, the current paper summarizes these physiological data, demonstrating that the aerobic capacities of the top four women were comparable to those of male pilots of the time.
Cobb had undergone a standard battery of personality and intelligence tests, EEG and neurological tests and psychiatric interviews.
On the final day of advanced testing she was immersed in a soundproof isolation tank filled with cold water in order to induce total sensory deprivation. Based on previous experiments in several hundred subjects, it was thought that six hours was the absolute limit of tolerance for the experiment before the onset of hallucinations. Cobb, however, spent more than nine hours in the water, before the staff terminated the experiment.
All told, Cobb had tested in the top 2% of all tested candidates, male and female. In May 1961 Cobb received an informal invitation to undergo spaceflight stimulation training at the U.S. Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Pensacola, FL. After ten days of testing, she had scored as well as experienced Navy pilots and plans were made to test the remaining 12 women.
Jacqueline "Jackie" Cochran
Although she knew of the Woman in Space project, and did not meet the qualifications for testing, she believed she had been deprived of a leadership role in the program. In the end, however, she and her husband agreed to fund the Pensacola testing for the 12 women.
The End of a Vision
In a meeting with then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson, he expressed no support for the program. Embittered by her experience Jerrie Cobb continued to lobby until 1965. For the next five years she flew missionary operations in the Amazon and in 1980 was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.
It would be more than 30 years after the testing that 11 of the 13 Mercury women would be reunited. This time, 1995, they came to watch Eileen Collins pilot the first flight of the joint Russian-American Space Program.
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