The Mercury 13
Credit: NASA

The Mercury 13

22/02/2017Written by Tamela Maciel

The Mercury 13 were an amazing group of ‘hidden figures’ in the early days of the Space Race.

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mascot Telescope Right
Credit: NASA

When the film Hidden Figures launched – celebrating the key work of female African-American mathematicians employed by NASA during the Space Race – it raised awareness of not only Katherine Johnson and her colleagues, but also the many other hidden NASA figures past and present. One of those other hidden groups is known as the Mercury 13.

The biographies and space flights of NASA’s original class of astronauts – the Mercury 7 – are well-known. But many people don’t realise that 13 female pilots also passed the same rigorous selection tests as the Mercury 7. Since dubbed the Mercury 13, these potential female astronauts were never official NASA astronauts, and never even met as one group. Nevertheless, they were trailblazers in the early days of the Space Race, proving that women could excel at the same astronaut tests as their male counterparts and paving the way for the female NASA astronauts to come, from Sally Ride to Kate Rubins.

The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff
Mercury 7. Credit: NASA
The Right Stuff
Jerrie Cobb in training. Credit: NASA via CTIE Monash University
The Right Stuff
Jerrie Cobb on a tilt table. Credit: NASA via CTIE Monash University
The Right Stuff
Reunion of 7 of the Mercury 13. Credit: NASA
The Right Stuff
Sally Ride. Credit: NASA

When NASA began selecting the first class of astronauts in the early 1960s, it was unclear exactly what physical and mental tests were needed to prove they had the ‘right stuff’ to fly into space. So instead NASA doctors devised a dizzying range of tests – from isolation chambers to cardiovascular endurance tests on stationary bikes to stress tests involving loud noises, heat, and vibration – all designed to push candidates to their very limits.

NASA required the astronaut candidates to be pilots, but the doctor who lead these tests, Dr William Randolph Lovelace II, saw no reason why female pilots should not also be tested. If all other things were equal, Lovelace reasoned that the smaller, lighter bodies of women would be preferable in space – they had less weight to launch, required smaller spacecraft components like seats and suits, and consumed less food per day.

In 1960 Lovelace invited award-winning pilot Geraldyn ‘Jerrie’ Cobb to take the same tests that he’d devised for NASA’s astronaut selection process. Jerrie passed all three phases of testing with flying colours, becoming the first woman to do so. Following Jerrie’s success, and with funding from his close friend and well-known pilot Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ Cochran, Lovelace invited 19 more women to take the astronaut tests at his private clinic in New Mexico. They were all accomplished commercial pilots with more than a thousand hours of flying time each. The tests were conducted in secret and individually, unlike the group tests of the male Mercury candidates.

In total, 13 women passed the same gruelling, week-long tests that selected NASA’s first class of astronauts. The oldest was Jane Hart, a 41-year-old mother of eight children and wife of a US Senator. The youngest was Wally Funk, a 23-year-old flight instructor.

The women of the unofficial Mercury 13 group were:

Jerrie Cobb
Wally Funk
Irene Leverton
Myrtle “K” Cagle
Jane Hart
Gene Nora Stumbough [Jessen]
Jerri Sloan [Truhill]
Rhea Hurrle [Woltman]
Sarah Gorelick [Ratley]
Bernice “B” Trimble Steadman
Jan Dietrich
Marion Dietrich
Jean Hixson

After this first round of individual testing, the 13 women prepared to gather in Florida at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine for further advanced testing when the plug was suddenly pulled on the programme. As it was not an official NASA project, the Navy objected to the use of their facilities, but this happened only days before the group prepared to assemble, and only after two of the women quit their jobs in order to attend.

This abrupt cancellation sparked petitions from Jerrie Cobb, Jackie Cochran, and others to the highest levels of government including US President John Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson. In July 1962 Cobb, Cochran, and Hart testified before a subcommittee of congress, coming up against opposition from NASA representatives and newly-selected astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter. Discrimination based on gender was not yet illegal in US law and NASA’s requirement that astronauts have jet flight experience ruled out all women as, at the time, they were not allowed to enter the test pilot programmes that would have given them jet experience.

The hearings achieved little, and the unofficial Mercury 13 project folded before the women had even gathered as one group. When the Soviet Union launched the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963, NASA was put under additional public pressure but it wasn’t until 1978 that NASA selected its first female astronauts. Among them, Sally Ride, who became the first American woman in space in 1983.

Today the number of men who have flown in space still far outnumbers the number of women (492 men in space compared to just 60 women as of February 2017). But thankfully the days of the Mercury 13 group are long gone. There’s no evidence to suggest that men and women perform any differently in space and for the first time NASA’s most recent class of astronauts (NASA Group 21) is comprised of equal numbers of men and women.

The race for space was a collective endeavour that relied on the best and brightest talent available, regardless of gender, race, or background, and Hidden Figures does a wonderful job of bringing some of these stories to light. Hopefully this film’s success will reveal the many other hidden stories still waiting to be told.

Find out more: You can listen to interviews with some of the Mercury 13 women in the Into Space gallery at the National Space Centre. 

Read: Lovelace’s Women In Space Program

[2018 UPDATE] Read: Wally Funk’s Race for Space by Sue Nelson 

Watch: BBC’s documentary ‘The Women with the Right Stuff

About the author: Dr Tamela Maciel is the Space Communications Manager at the National Space Centre.