Monday, 18 April 2011

Post#171 Women Astronauts

Crater 308 viewed from orbit
 Now, imagine this:
July 20, 1969

The Lunar Excursion Module Eagle is approaching the intended first landing site in the Sea of Tranquility.

The lander is off course due to a computer guidance error. Unless the pilot can manually correct course they'll hit a large boulder in a crater near the intended landing site.

At the controls of the LEM are, of course, two astronauts. But wait! These aren't Neil and Buzz! This is amazing!! Two women are crewing the lander.  Will they succeed in averting disaster or dissolve into wreckage on the lunar surface?

This was the real problem facing Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin. The seasoned test-pilot, Armstrong, met the challenge and landed the LEM safely about six and a half kilometres from the crater. Could a female team have succeeded? This was the crucial question in the debate about admitting women to the astronaut training programme. NASA insisted that its first crews must be qualified as test-pilots and possess the sort of credentials in the field which could only be obtained through the military. There were, of course, no female military test-pilots in the late 1950s when the US space programme began. The debate itself was provoked by an accidental circumstance that had no official intention behind it. Dr William Randolph Lovelace II was the director of the clinic which had provided medical testing services to NASA and had supervised the assessment of the Mercury astronauts. His scientific curiosity led him to investigate the performance of women in the same testing regime.

This prompted a few of them to believe that there was a serious chance of them joining the programme. Geraldyn ("Jerrie") Cobb was the most active and engaged in a public campaign to press NASA to accept her and others of the group for training. This led to a sad and futile struggle as NASA and the USAF disowned the idea. A Congressional hearing affirmed NASA's policy but Cobb never gave up the idea, even into old age. This article gives the essence of the story.

The myth persists that a team of female atronauts had been "good to go" and were shafted by the androcracy. This pops up in various conspiracy-theory communities and among less-informed feminist commentators. There are some very detailed texts available on the subject and I recommend:


Promised the Moon: The Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race
by Stephanie Nolen
Published by Penguin  2002

The Mercury 13

by Martha Ackmann
Published by Random House

Here's a comment by a son of one of the test subjects from the Wired Science site:

My Mom, Gene Nora Jessen (nee Stumbough) is probably delighted that this meme won’t die, but yes, this story has become encrusted with a lot of myth. When people send her fan letters in Idaho extolling her for taking part in a “secret astronaut training program” she writes back to correct them, nicely but firmly, and signs her letter “Yours for accurate history”.

Yes, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and she quit her job as a flight instructor to go take the tests (they wouldn’t let her take time off!), but she never had any illusions about what she was getting into. This was just a research program, not a ticket into space. The whole group by no means agrees on this point. Ask a different woman and you’ll get a different answer.

Incidentally the sobriquet “Mercury 13” was created by a documentarian named James Cross, a goofy guy with a feminist bent and an abiding interest in aeronautics who dug up this story in the 1990s and called Mom out of the blue to see if it was really her. Yes, the phrase “Mercury 13” is your basic Hollywood Lie, but it’s catchy and we have Jim to thank for resuscitating this story and giving it a catchy name. When he arranged for all the surviving members to meet at the 99s [international women pilots org] museum in Oklahoma City in Spring 1994 to sit for interviews, it was the first time they’d all met each other. When they originally took the tests in the 1960s, Lovelace sequestered them in pairs in a local motel – which didn’t encourage them to form much of a group identity, but did at least give them all someone sympathetic to talk to at the end of a hard day of getting yet another goddamn enema.

If anyone wants to contact Gene Nora (which by the way is pronounced as one word with the accent in the middle: jaNOra), I’m sure she’d be happy to hear from you. I won’t include her email here - if you’re motivated you can probably Google it in under a minute. But before you make contact, it’d be best to do your homework. At least four books have been written on the subject (Right Stuff Wrong Sex by Weitekamp, The Mercury 13 by Ackmann/Sherr, Promised the Moon by Nolen, and Amelia Earhart’s Daughters by Haynsworth/Toomey) and they’re all generally pretty sober and comprehensive affairs, which is handy, because this story really is insanely stupidly gobsmackingly complicated.

Taylor Jessen
The impetus to believe in the stymied project is, I believe, a product of a kind of sexual romanticism. It can be found in the fictional realm in the person of characters such as Lara Croft, Brenda Starr, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other such figures of fancy. At least, that's what appeals to the male imagination. The attraction for women who desire to see female pioneering is a natural-enough desire to wipe away the remnants of the suffocating and often idiotic restraints to which women were subjected in the past.

Sally Ride and the other US women astronauts who followed her may have benefited from the stirring of the pot which the Mercury 13 agitators produced. Their challenge to what John Glenn described as the "social order" may have broken the sled runners free of the ice. One of the byproducts of the situation was the inspiration of Jane Hart and others to become active in feminist politics and to contribute to the founding of the National Organisation for Women.

Eileen Collins - First woman to command a US spacecraft

And, when the struggle was won...

The first woman to command a US spacecraft, Eileen Collins, said that a spaceflight was a wonderful experience but that she wouldn't want anyone to despair for lack of it.