Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Book Review: The Mercury 13- The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight

I knew going into Martha Ackmann's historical account The Mercury Thirteen: The true story of thirteen women and the dream of space flight that, due to the content, it would be difficult, frustrating, and infuriating at times to read. During a time when John Glenn and other male pilots and astronauts were national heroes, the physical and mental superiority of white men over women and people of color was simply a given when it came to the dream of space flight. This inherent superiority of white men was a "self-evident truth" to most Americans in the 1950s and early 1960s despite the fact that NASA had not actually conducted tests comparing how white men stacked up against other groups.

Ackmann presents an account of thirteen female pilots (sometimes referred to as "the Mercury 13") who, at a research foundation, underwent much of the same testing of the male Mercury astronauts and tried desperately to realize their dream of becoming astronauts. (All quotes from The Mercury 13, unless otherwise indicated. Also, much, much more detail about these events and specific people is included in Ackmann's book, so I highly recommend it to those who are interested).

1. Legacy of Exclusion

In 1958, during the beginnings of the US space race with the Soviet Union, President Eisenhower cleared "in five minutes" a NASA administrator's advice to restrict the pool of astronaut candidates to military jet test pilots (9). This decision effectively limited the pool of astronaut candidates to white men, as few minority men were in that field and women were not allowed in it at all. As Ackmann explains, it simply didn't occur to Eisenhower or NASA that anyone "other than white men might have the desire and the ability to fly in space" (Ibid.).

This wasn't to say that women were not pilots in the 1950s and '60s. Thousands of women were pilots in the US during this time. The US military just did not allow women to be military pilots. During World War II, however, pilots Nancy Love and Jackie Cochran organized and oversaw the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) in order to ferry military aircraft, fly military personnel, and help in the war efforts (30-31). 25,000 female pilots applied for this program, and 2,000 were accepted (Ibid.). However, when the men began returning home, the military deactivated the WASPs and, later, refused to recognize them as veterans meaning that, unlike men who served in the war, the WASPs did not receive military benefits or the GI bill (Ibid.). When 38 female pilots were killed in the line of duty, the US refused to pay to ship their bodies home and did not allow American flags to be draped over their coffins (Ibid.).

When I read about this, which I recently did for the first time as none of this was ever covered in any of my Real History courses, I was reminded that we sort of have a collective image of what a Default American Hero looks like and that it's usually not a woman. (He's usually not a man of color, either). I wonder, how often have the efforts of Lady Heroes been made invisible throughout history in this way? How has this invisibility reinforced the idea that men are inherently heroic, courageous, and strong whereas women are inherently cowardly, weak, and feeble?

Stereotypes have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies, trapping people as they do in "roles" and "expectations." We saw that women were highly capable of being pilots during WWII, for instance, yet when the men returned from war women were expected to just forget that and return to their "natural" roles of wife and mother. For beings who are supposed to possess superior intelligence, it doesn't follow for men to truly believe in their heart of hearts that women are incapable of doing Things That Men Do, in light of the fact that women have often done Things That Men Do throughout history.

I wonder, how much human talent, heroism, and genius has man-kind squandered throughout history by insisting on gender apartheid in the field of Human Endeavor?

2. Lady Astronauts

And that brings us to Randy Lovelace, and his independent tests on female pilots. In the late 1950s, NASA was not interested in testing female pilots for astronaut viability. For one, NASA claimed to know very little about how female bodies worked since all of their research to date had been done on men; thus, spending time researching women would divert time and energy away from their primary work on men (45). Despite NASA's concession that they lacked test results on women, one Colonel then stated as fact anyway that women lacked the physical and mental competence to travel to space (Ibid.).

And, given that menstruation-obsessed medical professional during this time believed that women just could not think clearly during their periods, it was believed that women would be more likely than men to crash planes (38). Isn't it bizarre how often men have used the phenomenon of female menstruation to deny women access to all of the many Things That Men Do? Sports. Education. Society. It's as though men used to think about periods more than any woman thought about periods, back then.

Not all men during this time lacked curiosity about women's actual abilities to be astronauts. Randy Lovelace opened his Lovelace Foundation for Medical Education and Research to notable pilot Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb for testing (61). The Foundation performed a total of 75 tests on Cobb's body and, after her exceptional test scores, invited 25 other accomplished female pilots to take the tests. 19 enrolled in the testing and 13 of them passed the same tests that the male Mercury 7 pilots passed. (Statistically speaking, 68% of the female candidates passed the tests "with no medical reservations" compared to 57% of the male candidates).

Lovelace concluded that "women had no inherent, biological, or physical limitation that would prevent them from operating as well as men in the extreme conditions of spaceflight" (99). Several of the women who could take time off of work and their responsibilities at home completed additional phases of testing and were gearing up for more advanced phases, using military equipment and jets, at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine. However, before this testing could be done, NASA stopped it, effectively halting the women's testing program claiming that it did not at that time "'have a requirement for such a program'" (132). That is, the white men who ran the world's preeminent exploration agency saw no requirement for exploring whether anyone other than white men were capable of being astronauts.

Unfortunately, white male politicians were similarly untroubled by the astronauts' demographic composition. During a meeting with Mercury 13 members Jane Hart and Jerrie Cobb, Vice President Lyndon Johnson said that allowing women to be astronauts wasn't his call to make, it was NASA's, and refused to intervene on their behalf (148). Then, during infuriating Congressional Hearings, amidst Congressmen who had the privilege of seeing the debate in terms of lighthearted jokes about ladies in space, Jerrie Cobb and Jane Hart presented a clear and articulate case for continuing the women's testing program (158).

Astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, whom Congress lauded as heroes during the testimony, testified on the issue of women in space. Although neither man knew much about the testing that had already been done on the Mercury 13, Glenn expressed contentment with the current discriminatory status quo, saying:

"I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized, really. It is just a fact. The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable" (168).

He then added that he wouldn't oppose a women's testing program, but he also saw no requirement for it (Ibid.). NASA's George Low reassured Congress that NASA wasn't discriminating against women or anything, it was just that women weren't interested in scientific careers and test piloting (165). In spite of the fact that women were present who were actually interested in those things.

So, despite the fact that many women had been pilots in World War II, that many women were interested in serving their countries during war, did want to fly military jets, were interested in becoming astronauts, and were proven to be as physically and mentally competent as men in doing so, powerful and influential white men created their own convenient "facts of our social order" in order to justify denying women these opportunities. Congress ended up determining that NASA's judgment was "sound" with respect to the issue (171).

So, it wasn't until the 1970s and '80s that the various branches of the military began allowing women to be jet test pilots (183). In 1999, a gracious Eileen Collins became the first female pilot and commander of a space shuttle, thanking the Mercury 13 for giving female astronauts "a history" (189).

The bravery and ability of America's first astronauts, all of whom were male, cannot be denied. Yet, without diminishing what these men accomplished, I hope that Americans who value equality and fairness will look upon such accomplishments through a bittersweet lens. Like Judith, Woolf's unknown, unheralded woman who possesses Shakespeare's gifts, how many women throughout history have been denied opportunities of heroism, adventure, and success because of the many doors that were closed to women?

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