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The Mercury 13:
The Untold Story of Thirteen American
Women and the Dream of Space Flight

by Martha Ackmann
Random House, 2003

Review by Kristen C. Stoever

In the early 1960s, Cape Canaveral was a rarefied province of college-educated white guys who smoked like chimneys and wore white short-sleeve shirts equipped with pocket protectors.

They were engineers and technicians on a holy Cold War mission -- to beat the Soviets into space and, ultimately, to the moon.

Occupying the loftiest perch were seven remarkable men: Fueled by caffeine and cigarettes, Carpenter, Cooper, Glenn, Grissom, Schirra, Shepard and Slayton were NASA's supermen. As engineering test pilots and Project Mercury astronauts, they would make the country's first spaceflights, in a tiny craft with room for one medium-sized adult.

But in the spring of 1961, as NASA's alpha-est alpha male, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Alan B. Shepard, prepared to be the first American launched into space, an unheralded 30-year-old pilot named Jerri Sloan -- business owner, Texan, soon to be divorced -- was holed up in a fleabag Albuquerque motel called the Bird of Paradise, fielding yet another drunken phone call from her husband. He was working, apparently, from a timeworn script:

"What the [expletive] are you doin' in [expletive] Albuquerque? When the [expletive] are you comin' the [expletive] home?"

Louise Shepard, Al's serene helpmeet, was meanwhile in Virginia Beach, calmly raising three school-aged daughters while her husband and his six Project Mercury colleagues trained -- and trained and trained. Patient military wives. Uncomplaining children accustomed to important absent fathers. Largely true propaganda reported dutifully in Life magazine and read by the entire English-speaking world.

Not that it was easy being Al and Louise Shepard, or John and Annie Glenn. But in 1961 it was probably easier, or more gratifying, than being Jerri Sloan.

Easier than being Jerrie Cobb, certainly, another astronaut wannabe and perhaps the central figure in Martha Ackmann's Mercury 13, a lovingly researched and beautifully written account of this long-ago time with its not-so ancient inequities.

But back to Mr. Sloan: What was his wife doing in Albuquerque?

One answer: astronaut testing, or something like it, at the legendary Lovelace Clinic. Sloan and 17 other women with an assortment of flying credentials had been told if they did exceedingly well on medical and stress tests -- made famous in 1959 by the Project Mercury guys -- then they too might fly into space.

Might fly.

On this wisp of a hope -- not extended by NASA -- women took leaves of absence, arranged for baby sitters, bartered with mostly supportive husbands and bosses and journeyed to Albuquerque in 1961.

The other, truer answer?

As Ackmann explains it: They were there to satisfy the medical curiosity of Dr. William R. ("Randy") Lovelace II and the vaulting ambition of Jackie Cochran, founder of the Womens' Airforce Service Pilots and holder of a slew of aviation speed records.

For his part, Lovelace had long been connected with extreme flying and the aeromedical community, which is why NASA had tapped him two years earlier to help select the country's first spacemen. He and Cochran were close friends. She had a number of influential friends, among them Chuck Yeager, test pilot of the century. Others respected her.

Cochran, we are given to understand from Ackmann's fascinating portrait, wanted respect, influence, power and access -- proffer these or get out of the woman's way. Friend and foe had been doing just this since Cochran cast off a Florida Panhandle past replete with tar-paper shacks, a different given name (Bessie Mae Pittman or Bessie Lee, accounts vary), a grade-school education and a stint in Southern beauty parlors. After renaming herself, Cochran emerges remade in New York, where she cultivates a stable of clients at Saks Fifth Avenue and catches the attention of Floyd Odlum, owner of RCA and General Dynamics. A marriage in 1936, which was long and happy, followed in fairy-tale fashion. She eventually combined her business acumen with a passion for flying. Prestigious air races, and contacts, followed.

But Cochran was in her 50s, and past her flying prime, as the Space Age dawned. Asked for her reaction to Shepard's historic flight, she replied forlornly, "I can't imagine that the Space Age will pass me by."

It would pass her by -- but not before she had leveraged her influence, contacts, wealth and the force of her personality to bankroll a private effort to pit the gals against the guys.

Which brings us back to the Lovelace Clinic.

There were valid aeromedical reasons to undertake the female trials, some related to the payload problems associated with launching more than 2,000 pounds into Earth's orbit. The less the pilot weighs, the easier it is to get him, or her, into space. Women tend to be more compact than men and, as a consequence, to weigh less. They breath less oxygen, a finite resource in space.

There were questions about women's mental toughness. Could they withstand the psychological rigors of spaceflight? Like all clinicians, Lovelace had theories, but he needed raw scores from healthy women for purposes of comparison. Qualified candidates were drawn from a pool of female pilots, who were then invited to the clinic, singly or in twos, and told to keep the matter to themselves. Cochran underwrote their expenses.

Some of the women had little in common. There was tongue-tied Jerrie Cobb, whose life story is traced with real feeling: An anywhere-but-here misfit, Cobb knew instinctively that flying offered her a rare way out of her native Oklahoma.

Others grew up in relative suburban privilege. The Dietrich twins held degrees from the University of California at Berkeley; another candidate held a University of Denver science degree. A handful had set high-altitude flying records and held the coveted ATR, the airline transport rating.

Some answered Jackie Cochran's summons with stunning naivete, assuming they actually had a shot at spaceflight. Parade magazine ran a cover story -- text and photos supplied by Cochran -- and in the excitement, "lady" and "astronaut" and "NASA" began appearing for the first time together. More-circumspect candidates understood their unofficial status and for years kept their participation secret.

You have to admire these women, who sacrificed so much -- one said glumly: "All I lost was my job and 20 pounds" -- to satisfy their competitive drive and curiosity, to contribute to a knowledge base, to prove something to themselves, to set an example.

As the inequities and selection criteria conspire against her subjects, Ackmann soft-pedals the serious issue of credentials.

Perhaps most important, the women never took the pre-Lovelace battery of tests for I.Q. and engineering knowledge that the Project Mercury men took. Ackmann holds the Mercury astronaut wives up for ill-deserved swipe. And also, of course, white male decision makers: Ackmann claims that "it never occurred" to President Dwight D. Eisenhower "that someone other than white men might also have the desire and the ability to fly into space." In deciding to send only jet-qualified military test pilots into history, the U.S. president "also perpetuated another kind of history, a legacy of exclusion," she writes.

It's good fun, censuring white men and those legacies of exclusion, and Ackmann goes at it with gusto. To her great credit, she relates a complicated mosaic of good intentions and ambitions, of self-promotion and self-delusion. She does not spare Cochran, who in the end played a dilettante's role in setting this girl-power juggernaut into motion, and who without NASA's knowledge, caused some women to think the young space agency was a dream machine capable of transforming flying credentials and test scores into a spot at the top of an Atlas.

Of the 18 women who reported to Lovelace, 13 did very well, hence the "Mercury 13" of the title. But in the end, the 13 advanced to nothing more than a stone wall and sobering life lessons, replete with minor humiliations for those who persevered.

Jerrie Cobb took the rejection hard, after absorbing the increasingly hardline language about her status in NASA press releases. She may have wanted it the most, believed the most and, in the end, been the most disappointed.

Janey Hart, another member of the Lovelace testing group, did more than absorb rejection. The mother of eight and accomplished pilot was also the wife of a U.S. senator, Philip Hart (D-Mich.). By June 1962, it was official: The House Committee on Science and Astronautics would hold hearings about discrimination against women at NASA. At the very least, Hart wanted the hearings to pressure NASA, a civilian government agency, to permit women's testing to continue. The hearings went on; the testing did not.

In not putting more of her story in the Cold War context of the times, Ackmann fails to convey to her readers -- many of whom may be new to the era and viewing the world through her girl-power prism -- that when President Eisenhower authorized the creation of NASA, he was on the side of the angels.

Anticipating manned spaceflight as early as the fall of 1958, Eisenhower entertained the first proposals from an idealistic NASA selection committee recommending men and women, all colors and creeds, from a range of high-risk fields. He said no: I need military pilots and I need them now.

A legacy of exclusion? Perhaps. But in 1958 Eisenhower wasn't thinking about gender. He saw citizens of the free world in jeopardy, and he wanted soldiers, jet-qualified military test pilots, on the most dangerous front lines technology was then imagining.

His vision, one eventually embraced by President John F. Kennedy, is something all Americans more than 40 years later can celebrate, as we imagine sending women -- and men too, if they qualify -- to a distant red planet called Mars.

Stoever is the author, along with her father, Scott Carpenter, of 'For Spacious Skies: The Uncommon Journey of a Mercury Astronaut,' (Harcourt, 2003).

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