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Women's Space Dreams Cut Short, Remembered

In the early 1960s, before men walked on the moon and before John Glenn orbited the Earth, a small group of female pilots underwent secret testing for spaceflight.

They became known as the Mercury 13. They passed the same punishing tests as men but never flew in space. One of those women was Jerri Truhill, who first flew with her father at the age of 4.

"I said, 'I want to fly all the time,'" Truhill recalls. "And he said, 'Well, if you make real good grades and you grow up and you become a registered nurse, then you can be an air hostess.' And I said, 'Oh, no. That wasn't what I had in mind at all. I am going to fly planes.'"

Truhill did fly planes, though not spacecraft.

This weekend, she and other Mercury 13 pilots will be honored at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh for paving the way for future female astronauts.

'A Top-Secret Project'

In 1961, Truhill says, she got a call from her friend Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb, who had been through secret testing.

"She asked me if I could get away for a top-secret government project," Truhill says. "She didn't say what it was and I didn't ask."

Several months later, Truhill came home from work to find a letter.

"We understand that you have volunteered for preliminary astronaut testing," it said.

Truhill was shocked. America lagged the Soviet Union in space, "and so I thought, 'Well, if they're looking for astronauts, they must think they've got something they can put up there and if they do, I want to fly it.' So, I said, 'Sure.'"

Determined to Pass

Truhill says the testing was just like in the movie, The Right Stuff, the story of the original Mercury astronauts.

"It's the same thing," she says. "We went through right behind the men. They were told not to cut us any slack at all because we were women."

There were tests to see how long it took the women to recover from vertigo. And they were told to put their hands into freezing cylinders to see how they reacted to shock.

"I don't think any of the women even said, 'Ouch.' We were so determined that we were going to pass this," Truhill says.

"It was very grueling. It was very painful. As a matter fact, some of the tests, we were told, we came out better than the men did as far as being suited for spaceflight."

Dr. William Randolph "Randy" Lovelace, who ran an astronaut testing center for NASA in Albuquerque, N.M., told the women to go home, "get our businesses in order and be prepared to go to Pensacola (Fla.) for further testing."

But it was not to be.

A Sudden Halt

"The night before we were to leave, we get a telegram from Dr. Lovelace. All it said was, 'The program has been canceled,'" Truhill recalls. "That was it. There was no explanation. We didn't know what the devil had happened."

Truhill says that records obtained a few years ago through the Freedom of Information Act revealed the reason for the program's abrupt halt.

"From the beginning, we were walking all over great, giant egos of the men," Truhill says. "They didn't want us, they didn't want women around. And then the one that put the nail in the coffin was [Vice President] Lyndon Johnson," who ordered the training to stop.

Truhill says she and her fellow Mercury 13 pilots weren't upset to see men like Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom and John Glenn become heroes.

"We were glad for them," Truhill says. "We were glad to see the United States do something. We really were. But we still could have put the first woman in space. It was not until ... 35 years later that they finally let Eileen Collins pilot a shuttle."

Truhill and some of her fellow Mercury 13 women attended Collins' space shuttle launch in 1995.

"We were so thrilled and she was so marvelous," Truhill says. "She's had two children and she's happily married. Eileen proved what we had been saying all along: Men can be husbands and fathers and do their job, and women can be mothers and wives and do their job."

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