The Mercury 13 : The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight
In 1961, just as NASA launched its first man into space, a group of women underwent secret testing in the hopes of becoming America's first female astronauts. They passed the same battery of tests at the legendary Lovelace Foundation as did the Mercury 7 astronauts, but they were summarily dismissed by the boys' club at NASA and on Capitol Hill. The USSR sent its first woman into space in 1963; the United States did not follow suit for another twenty years. For the first time, Martha Ackmann tells the story of the dramatic events surrounding these thirteen remarkable women, all crackerjack pilots and patriots who sometimes sacrificed jobs and marriages for a chance to participate in America's space race against the Soviet Union. In addition to talking extensively to these women, Ackmann interviewed Chuck Yeager, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, and others at NASA and in the White House with firsthand knowledge of the program, and includes here never-before-seen photographs of the Mercury 13 passing their Lovelace tests.
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July 12, 2004
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Excerpt from The Mercury 13 by Martha Ackmann
Jerrie Cobb reached down and pulled the heavy layers of arctic clothing over her navy blue linen dress. Already the temperature on the airport tarmac that afternoon in June 1957 was a steamy ninety degrees. The shy, soft-spoken young pilot did not mind the heat nearly as much as she minded the reporters who crowded around her. She disliked all the attention and being forced to answer questions such as why she needed warm clothing for her attempt at a new altitude record. Cobb had trouble putting her thoughts into words and knew reporters found her not as quotable as they would like. The questions were predictable. "Are you frightened, Miss Cobb, about trying to break the world record " "How cold will it get up there " "Why does a pretty young girl like you want to spend her time around the dirt and grime and noise of airplanes " "What about boyfriends Are you more afraid of dating than flying six miles up " Cobb paused before answering and patiently tried to explain why flying was more important than anything else in her life. It was always difficult for her to describe how content she felt when she was alone in an airplane. She realized her words sounded flat and could never express the genuine passion she felt for flying. It was easier to keep her personal feelings hidden and focus instead on what she wanted to accomplish that day. Her goal, Cobb told the reporters, was to the break the current world altitude record for lightweight aircraft. Since Oklahoma was celebrating its Semi-Centennial, she wanted to use her skills as a pilot to set world records for the Sooner State. Aero Design and Engineering, an Oklahoma City-based aviation company, had been eager to sponsor Cobb and lend her its new twin-engine airplane for the record-breaking flight. It was good publicity, especially after Cobb used one of their planes to break the world record for nonstop long-distance flying-from Guatemala City to Oklahoma City-just five weeks earlier. Today Cobb would push the Aero Commander beyond the highest altitude it had ever achieved. It was a risky proposition. Test pilots had flown the plane to 27,000 feet. Cobb was hoping for 30,000. Her parents just hoped that she could avoid a fatal stall.
Cobb excused herself from the clutch of reporters to concentrate on her final checklist. She had been up since daylight to smoke the barograph drums. Taking a stick of camphor, Cobb had held it near the barograph, coating the surface with dusky smoke. The sharp point of a stylus would scratch through the soot to register her precise altitude. To prepare her lungs for the thin air of the upper atmosphere and wash out nitrogen in her system, she breathed 100 percent oxygen for two hours before the flight. She walked around the aircraft, examining the plane's hinges, vertical stabilizer, and rudder, and got down on her knees to check the tire pressure. She lowered the plastic fuel sampler and studied the color of the fuel, checked it for sediment, and smelled its sharp, pungent odor. Standing nearby, Cobb watched as officials from the National Aeronautic Association certified the official scales and confirmed the Commander's weight class.