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'The Mercury 13': Training U.S. Women for Space

Twenty years ago Wednesday, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, on board the shuttle Challenger.

That milestone was preceded by a secret program in 1961 to test women pilots for space flight.

NPR's Melissa Block talks with Martha Ackmann, a senior lecturer of Women's Studies at Mount Holyoke College and author of a book about the program to put women into orbit, The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of 13 American Women and the Dream of Space Flight.

Out of a pool of women selected to undergo trials, 13 women endured and passed the battery of grueling physical and psychological tests — the same tests the original Mercury 7 male astronauts underwent at the Lovelace Foundation in Albuquerque, N.M.

In some cases, the women scored better on the tests than their male counterparts.

Cover for <i>The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight</i> (Random House 2003)
Cover for The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight (Random House 2003)

The names of the women pilots and would-be astronauts — among them, Jerrie Cobb, Wally Funk, Myrtle Cagle, Bernice "B" Steadman — are largely lost to history.

The testing program was halted and eventually scrapped, in large part, Ackmann writes, because of a pervasive "boy's club" attitude at NASA.

Ackmann writes of dedication and sacrifice of the women in the "space race" with the Soviet Union (The Soviet Union launched the first woman into space in 1963).

But the book is also an indictment of the sexist attitudes that kept the women from becoming astronauts — even though some of the candidates were among the most accomplished pilots of their time, male or female.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.