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One giant leap - backward: Part 2
Today, women astronauts such as Canada's Roberta Bondar are a familiar sight. But in the early 1960s, a forgotten corps of extraordinary U.S. `astronettes' passed torturous tests and training with flying colours - only to see a sexist society snatch their dream away. Today, The Globe's STEPHANIE NOLEN tells the untold story of the scandal that inspired her new book

Globe and Mail Update

Saturday, October 12, 2002

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Geraldyn (Jerrie) Cobb, the public face of the `girl astronaut' program, poses with the Mercury capsule prototype in 1960.
Photo: courtesy of National Air and Space Museum

Seven of the surviving Mercury-era female astronaut candidates reunited for the launch of Lt.-Col. Eileen Collins's space-shuttle flight at Cape Canaveral, Fla., in 1995. Left to right: Gene Nora Jessen, Jerri Truhill, Jerrie Cobb, B. Steadman, Sarah Ratley, Wally Funk, K. Cagle.
Photo: courtesy of Jerri Truhill

The Mercury 7 in 1959.
Photo: courtesy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Jerrie Cobb at the controls of the MASTIF at a NASA test centre in 1960.
Photo: courtesy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

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Ms. Cobb arrived in Albuquerque on a chilly Valentine's Day in 1960, but there was nothing romantic about the instructions that awaited her: Have nothing to eat or drink, not even gum. Do an enema at night, another in the morning, and report to the lab at 8 a.m.

She was "Unit 1, Female." There were dozens of blood tests, and more than 100 X-rays, pictures of every bone she had. She blew into tubes while doctors listened for the smooth flow of blood between the chambers of her heart (tiny defects could explode in a rapidly-decompressing space capsule). They strapped her to a table and hung her tilted at 65 degrees while an EKG every five minutes recorded the function of her cardiovascular system.

And when she sat back in an innocuous-looking chair in the otolaryngologist's office, he used a huge syringe to inject supercooled, 10-degree-Farenheit water deep into her ear. The water froze her inner-ear bone, inducing vertigo. "I felt the water hit my inner ear and almost immediately the ceiling began to whirl and became a multiple of spinning blobs. My right hand fell off the chair and I couldn't lift it back. I knew what was going on, but I couldn't focus my eyes or control my equilibrium." A nurse stood over her with a stopwatch, clocking how long it took her to regain her balance.

Next they put her on an exercise bicycle, covered her in electrodes, and had her pedal in time to a metronome - and every minute, they added drag to the rear wheel, so it felt like going up an ever-steeper incline. She puffed into a gauge while a ring of doctors stood around watching. The metronome kept ticking, and she kept pedaling. And pedaling. Finally, as her pulse rate hit 180 (the point just before unconsciousness), they told her she could stop.

The test determined how far a person could continue once the point of exhaustion was reached - Ms. Cobb found "that extra push" deep within herself, knowing the Mercury men had beaten this bike.

She had passed the first round. But it wasn't over yet. Next, Dr. Lovelace arranged for her to "fly" the Multi-Axis Spin Test Inertia Facility (MASTIF) housed at NASA's Lewis Research Centre in Cleveland. It was a huge, three-way gyroscope, the size of a house, with three separate steel frames nested one inside another so that each could spin independently. It was designed to test a pilot's ability to control roll, pitch and yaw, the three axes on which a plane or spacecraft turns. A pilot sometimes fights against one, or maybe two. Spinning in space, a capsule could oscillate on all three, and the pilot would have to fire rocket thrusters to still the spinning.

Ms. Cobb reported to the lab that housed the monster, christened the Vomit Comet by the Mercury 7 - Alan Shepard, they say, hit the chicken switch on his first flight. Outfitted in an orange flight suit and a helmet, she climbed up into a rig about the same size as the Mercury capsule and slid onto the contoured couch, facing an instrument panel. Technicians strapped her to the seat with a chest harness, then tied down her legs, waist and helmet. Then the machine began to move, faster and faster, until it was spinning on all three axes at once at 30 revolutions a minute.

"First the thing started to pitch, and if I hadn't been fastened in, I would have been tossed right off the couch," Ms. Cobb recalled. "Then as the pitch reached peak speed, I felt the roll start. I was twisting, twisting like a toy, and going head-over-heels at the same time." When the yaw set in, her vision blurred and her stomach churned, as if she were on a dozen amusement-park rides at once - and Ms. Cobb avoided those rides.

She forced her eyes to focus. Using her hand control, she had to guide the capsule out of each spin - but if she pushed too far, too fast or not enough, the spinning got wilder. One by one, she stopped the gyrations, until suddenly, the machine was tamed.

She rode it a few more times, and in the end, the MASTIF handlers said her response was exceptionally quick. "And don't worry," they added, "the space capsule won't be nearly as bad."

Ms. Cobb took more tests that summer: Escaping from a spinning crashed "space ship" in a deep water tank, taking a jet through a punishing round of high G-force rolls, and a whole week of psychological grilling. Jay Shurley, a military psychiatrist, put her through his pioneering isolation-tank test, immersing in her a soundproof, lightproof, eight-foot tank of water heated to her exact body temperature. At the time, the tank was the closest thing scientists had to mimic the isolation of space.

Ms. Cobb climbed in - and at the end of nine hours quietly asked over the microphone if she had done enough. None of the previous female subjects had lasted more than six hours, and no man more than six-and-a-half. "Probably not one in 1,000 persons would be capable of making such a lengthy isolation run," Dr. Shurley wrote.


Dr. Lovelace made Ms. Cobb's extraordinary results public at the Space and Naval Medicine Congress, an international convention of aerospace scientists held in Stockholm in August. "We are already in a position to say that certain qualities of the female space pilot are preferable to those of her male colleague," he told the audience, adding that the tests to date were purely research - but would continue.

It is unlikely Dr. Lovelace made Ms. Cobb's results public without first talking to his colleagues at NASA. With Ms. Cobb, he was already using words such as "woman-in-space program," but in Stockholm he was cautious. Perhaps he was playing politics by going public.

"Nobody else was doing it, except maybe the Russians," his clinic colleague Donald Kilgore says now. "He wanted to be on the record about there being something special about female candidates."

His announcement delighted American reporters. "Moon Maid's Ready!" said one headline. "Astronette!" said another. Ms. Cobb's long blonde hair made the first paragraph of every story. Time helpfully put the 36-27-34 measurements of the "astronautrix" in the second.

Dr. Lovelace, meanwhile, was determined to find out if his one stellar subject was an aberration, or whether there might be more potential "girl astronauts." He asked if Ms. Cobb knew any other women with her kinds of hours as a commercial pilot. She listed the handful she knew from the aviation industry and the women's transcontinental air races. In late 1960 he sent out a first stack of letters, asking the women if they were interested in being tested as "potential women astronaut candidates", and warning them to keep their participation secret.

In ones and twos, over the next few months, 20 women made their way to the Lovelace Clinic. There was a petite, flirtatious Texan named Jerri Truhill who made her living test-flying secret military equipment. An Ohio schoolteacher named Jean Hixson who served as a test pilot for the WASP in World War II, the only time women were allowed to fly for the U.S. military. Jan and Marion Dietrich, a pair of vivacious twins from California who had been flying since they were little girls. A crusty, stubborn crop-duster turned Fire Service pilot named Irene Leverton from Chicago. Janey Hart, the daughter of a millionaire auto industrialist, wife of a senator, mother of eight, and at 40 a public feminist and helicopter pilot. And a 20-year-old New Mexico native named Wally Funk, who was working as a flight instructor on an Air Force base.

At the end of the summer of 1961, Dr. Lovelace had 13 women whose scores mirrored Ms. Cobb's, and he began to make plans to bring them to the naval base at Pensacola, where he would test them in jet flying and winnow the group down further.

By now, the doctor had a partner. He had asked his friend Jackie Cochran for help in finding candidates and, as she had a way of doing, she had decided she had better run things. She was, in 1960, one of the most powerful women in the country. She always claimed to have been an orphan who grew up dirt-poor and near-illiterate in a Florida mill town, but she learned to be a hairdresser and by the time she was in her early 20s she had moved to New York and founded an eponymous cosmetics company that rivaled Estée Lauder's.

She also fell in love with flying, and in 1938 was the first woman to win the Bendix Air Race, the country's most storied competition. She married a billionaire stock tycoon named Floyd Odlum, became a close friend of Amelia Earhart's, the confidante of generals and presidents. In the 1940s, she founded and led the WASP. Then she took up jet flying, and 1953 became the first woman to break the sound barrier.

When she heard Dr. Lovelace thought women belonged in space, she immediately decided she would be first. But her old friend broke the news that, in her early fifties, she was too old. If she couldn't go, then she was going to decide who did - and she didn't much like Ms. Cobb, one of her few rivals for newspaper headlines and air records.

Nonetheless, Ms. Cobb had become the face of the women-in-space program. NASA's director, James Webb, named her his consultant on the issue. Some of the impetus was removed when NASA managed to launch a man, Alan Shephard, in a 15-minute suborbital shot in May. But the Soviets had launched two cosmonauts, and both had orbited the earth. In private and on the lecture circuit, Ms. Cobb said the U.S. had one space "first" well within its grasp - launching a woman.

Meanwhile, the other women (whom Ms. Cobb had taken to addressing in correspondence as the Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees, or FLATs) were all due in Pensacola on Sept. 17, 1961. They had arranged for people to look after their children, and four of them had to quit their precious flying jobs because their bosses didn't like the idea of women messing with the space program. But they weren't going to miss this opportunity.

On September 16, Jerri Truhill was at home in Dallas, saying goodbye to her kids; her husband Lou had filed for divorce, fed up with his independent wife, but that wasn't enough to stop her. She was just trying to figure out what to pack when the doorbell rang. It was a Western Union delivery boy.


But there never was another letter. Ms. Cobb flew to Washington and banged on doors; NASA and the Navy shrugged her off. Dr. Lovelace was strangely silent. She got no explanation for the abrupt cancellation. Ms. Cobb enlisted the help of Janey Hart, the senator's wife. The word "discrimination" was just beginning to be used on matters of gender and jobs, and after months of lobbying, the women managed to get a couple of politicians interested.


Ms. Cobb and Mrs. Hart met up outside a hearing room on Capitol Hill on July 17, 1962. They took their seats at the witness table, facing the row of representatives on the House Space Committee. Ten of the 12 were men, and all but one of those a war veteran. The chairman called on Ms. Cobb almost immediately. Feeling her stomach knot, she reminded herself how angry she was, and that this might be her only chance.

She told them how she was chosen, and about the tests, and for the first time she made public the names of the other 10 women. "We seek, only, a place in our nation's space future without discrimination. We ask as citizens of this nation to be allowed to participate with seriousness and sincerity in the making of history now, as women have in the past."

She outlined the medical and scientific reasons why it made sense to use women, then appealed to national pride: "We have seen the reflected pride of the entire free world in the accomplishments of U.S. Astronauts Shepard, Grissom, Glenn and Carpenter. All Americans, and certainly all pilots salute them. Now we who aspire to be women astronauts ask for the opportunity to bring glory to our nation by an American woman becoming first in all the world to make a space flight."

The next speaker was introduced as "Mrs. Philip Hart, an excellent wife and mother as well as a pilot." Poised and calm, she spoke lightly but with great seriousness. "It is inconceivable to me that the world of outer space should be restricted to men only, like some sort of stag club." But Ms. Hart knew she could not win this case arguing discrimination; she knew how to play politics.

"Above all," she said, "I don't want to downgrade the feminine role of wife, mother, and homemaker. It is a tremendously fulfilling role. But I don't think either, that it is unwomanly to be intelligent, to be courageous, to be energetic, to be anxious to contribute to human knowledge."

One of the committee members noted that the Mercury astronauts were all jet test pilots, while few of the FLATs had jet time. Ms. Cobb patiently explained that women pilots were barred in the Air Force, which did almost all the jet flying at the time. She didn't think it was a problem, but if NASA did, they should simply let them do the jet runs they had been set for, and see how they performed.

Ms. Cobb spoke eloquently of the women's thousands of hours of "equivalent experience" - "flawless judgment, fast reaction, and the ability to transmit that to the proper control of the craft," earned "the hard way," in as many as 10,000 hours and a million miles in flight.

The committee asked why their program was terminated so abruptly, but the women could only shrug and say they had no idea. So the floor was turned over to the day's star witness: Jackie Cochran. There was no love lost between Ms. Cochran and Ms. Cobb, but she was the only woman in the country with real jet experience, and she had the political connections that could help them. Ms. Cochran was the one who could make this happen.

Instead, she arranged her papers, listed off her hundreds of qualifications, and bluntly made her point: "I do not believe there has been any intentional or actual discrimination against women in the astronaut program to date." Since there was no pressing need for more astronauts, "and there is no shortage of well-trained and long-experienced male pilots," there was no need for women.

Ms. Cochran had testified to Congress before: In 1943 she defended her WASPs, when critics alleged, among other things, that it was a waste to train them to fly since they just went off and got married anyhow. But now she invoked the exact argument she had once fought: "You are going to have to, of necessity, waste a great deal of money when you take a large group of women in, because you lose them through marriage."

A few committee members bridled, noting that this argument would bar women from all the professions - and that all the male astronauts were married with children. "They didn't have [the babies]," Ms. Cochran snapped back.

As the committee prepared to break up for the day, she leaned forward with one last comment. "Even if we are second in getting a woman into the new environment," said the greatest female pilot in the country to the members of Congress, "it's better than to take a chance on having women fall flat on their faces."

The next day it got worse. Now it was NASA's turn at the witness table, and the space agency had sent its stars, Scott Carpenter, and John Glenn - the nation's hero, who had made his orbital flight five months before and finally given the United States an unblemished achievement in space. The galleries were packed with representatives and senators who came to hear the astronauts.

First, NASA's director of Spacecraft and Flight Missions outlined the criteria the agency was using to select astronauts. Then, Col. Glenn smoothly assured the committee that NASA had plenty of astronauts; they weren't looking for more. "[But] if we can find any women that demonstrate that they have better qualification for going into a program that we have going into that program, we would welcome them with open arms," Col. Glenn added.

The committee members dissolved in laughter, and he played it up. "For the purpose of my going home this afternoon, I think that should be stricken from the record."

The astronauts and the politicians went back and forth over the issue of whether the women should be given a chance to prove themselves in jets or simulators, before Col. Glenn leaned forward and neatly put into words what most of those in the room had been thinking - and closed the debate on female astronauts in the United States for 20 years.

"I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized, really. It is just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order."


None of the FLATs ever got to space. Though they could not know it, some of the most powerful people in the country were secretly working against them. Lyndon Johnson personally killed off any last hope of their joining the space program, only months before he pushed into law the Civil Rights Act making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender. Nobody in the United States saw any glory in having the most prestigious of American jobs being carried out by a girl with a ponytail.

And so the Soviets won this space race too, launching cosmonaunt Valentina Tereshkova in June 1963.

Most of the FLATs went back to their lives - they found new jobs, and kept flying. Most still fly today. But four did not give up the dream. Wally Funk, for instance, has contracted with a private space-tourism company that promises to launch her within a couple of years.

Ms. Cobb ran away to the Amazon jungle to serve as a missionary pilot shortly after the Congressional hearings and has lived there ever since. But she is now, at 71, the subject of an international lobby directed at NASA, whose supporters include Hillary Clinton and the National Organization for Women.

"I would give my life to fly in space," Ms. Cobb says. "I would have then. I would now."

Stephanie Nolen's Promised the Moon (Penguin Books) tells the story of the women recruited in the Mercury era and, for the first time. details the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering that kept them out of space. It goes It goes on sale Oct. 23.

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