Right Stuff, Wrong Sex

Mr Jender and J-Bro have both sent me this amazing story, on the women astronauts who very nearly were– way back at the beginning of the space programme.

Imagine if the first person on the moon had proclaimed, “That’s one small step for woman, one giant leap for mankind.”

It could have happened. In the late 1950s, the United States government contemplated training women as astronauts, and newly released medical test results show that they were just as cool and tough as the men who went to the moon.

“They were all extraordinary women and outstanding pilots and great candidates for what was proposed,” said Donald Kilgore, a doctor who evaluated both male and female space flight candidates at the Lovelace Clinic, a mid-century center of aeromedical research. “They came out better than the men in many categories.”

The clinic’s founder, Randy Lovelace, developed the health assessments used to select the Mercury 7 team, and thought that women might make competent astronauts. It was a radical idea for the era. Women’s liberation had just begun to stir, and only a quarter of U.S. women had jobs.

But Lovelace was practical: Women are lighter than men, requiring less fuel to transport them into space. They’re also less prone to heart attacks, and Lovelace considered them better-suited for the claustrophobic isolation of space.

In 1959, Lovelace collaborator Donald Flickinger, an Air Force general and NASA advisor, founded the Women In Space Earliest program in order to test women for their qualifications as astronauts. But the Air Force canned it before testing even started, prompting Lovelace to start the Woman in Space Program.

Nineteen women enrolled in WISP, undergoing the same grueling tests administered to the male Mercury astronauts. Thirteen of them — later dubbed the Mercury 13 — passed “with no medical reservations,” a higher graduation rate than the first male class. The top four women scored as highly as any of the men.

4 thoughts on “Right Stuff, Wrong Sex

  1. Thanks for posting this. I sent the link to my mom, who’s a private pilot, airplane mechanic, and my hero!

  2. Doesn’t surprise me that the women scored higher than the men in most of the categories. If the selection of the astronauts was based on qualifications they definitely would have been saying “That’s one small step for woman, one giant leap for mankind.” …and I guess we would still be trying today to put a “man” on the moon.

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