“Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: NASA’s Lost Female Astronauts”

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Women were more qualified to to go into space than men. Having the wrong gonads kept them grounded. This Wired.com article reports:

… 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.

“They were all motivated to a degree you could not measure. They knew they were ideal candidates, but NASA regulations kept them out of the game,”said Kilgore.

The results of the women’s tests are described for the first time in an article published in the September Advances in Physiology Education, and show just how capable they. One set of results, from the sensory deprivation tests, are especially striking.

“Based on previous experiments in several hundred subjects, it was thought that 6 hours was the absolute limit of tolerance for this experience before the onset of hallucinations,”write Kilgore and his co-authors.”[Jerrie] Cobb, however, spent 9 hours and 40 minutes during the experiment, which was terminated by the staff. Subsequently, two other women (Rhea Hurrle and Wally Funk) were also tested, with each spending over 10 hours in the sensory isolation tank before termination by the staff.”

During the test, the women were immersed in a lightless tank of cold water. By contrast, John Glenn’s memoir recounts being tested in a dimly-lit room, where he was provided with a pen and paper. Glenn’s test lasted just three hours.

The would-be Mercury 13 astronauts would ultimately be held to a different standard than their male counterparts. Some NASA officials speculated that female performance could be impaired by menstruation. Others wanted pilots who had already flown experimental military aircraft : something only men could have done, since women were barred from the Air Force.

In August 1961, WISP was cancelled. It was not until 1995, when Eileen Collins piloted the STS-63 shuttle around the MIR space station, that the Mercury 13 met again. Collins was the first woman to become a space pilot, but not the first woman who deserved to. …

The abstract for the referenced article is as follows:

“In 1959, Brigadier General Donald Flickinger and Dr. W. Randolph Lovelace II suggested that it would be more practical from an engineering standpoint to send women rather than men into space due to their lower body weights and oxygen requirements. When the Air Force decided not to pursue this project, Dr. Lovelace assumed leadership of the Woman in Space Program and began medical and physiological testing of a series of accomplished women aviators at the Lovelace Medical Clinic in Albuquerque, NM, in 1960. The tests that these women underwent were identical to those used to test the original Mercury astronauts, with the addition of gynecological examinations. Thirteen of the nineteen women tested passed these strenuous physiological exams (for comparison, 18 of 32 men tested passed); a subset of these pilots was further tested on a series of psychological exams that were similar to or, in some instances, more demanding than those given to male Mercury candidates. Despite these promising results, further testing was halted, and the Woman in Space Program was disbanded in 1962. Although the Woman in Space Program received a great deal of publicity at the time, the story of these women was somewhat lost until they were reunited at the 1999 launch of the shuttle Columbia, commanded by Colonel Eileen Collins.”

Read the full article here.

–Ann Bartow

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