1957: A Woman in Space?

The Space Race: Who Gets to Go First?

In 1957, when the space race began, aviation was a man’s field.

On October 4, that year, the world was turned on its head, never to be the same again. The Russians launched Sputnik 1 and space flight was born. The 23-inch-in-diameter sphere with two sets of antennae and weighing 184 pounds was the first man-made object to orbit Earth. Sputnik was unmanned, but Russia’s dream, as well as America’s dream, was to put a man in space.

It crossed the minds of only a few that the first human in space could be a woman.

America Heads for Space

In answer to the Russians and Sputnik, in 1958, President Eisenhower created NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA went to work. In April 1959, the space agency introduced America’s first seven astronauts, all military jet pilots — all men.

Dr. W. Randolph Lovelace, chairman of NASA’s Life Sciences Committee, and Air Force General Donald Flickinger together designed the medical and physical fitness testing for the astronaut candidates. The men went through the testing later in 1959. The tests were difficult, even for these pilots in top physical condition.

Dr. Lovelace specialized in aerospace medicine and believed that women would make excellent astronauts. They generally weighed less than men and were shorter, so they would need less oxygen and less food and water. He also thought they were more resistant to radiation, less prone to heart attacks and better suited to handling pain, heat, cold and loneliness. All were considerations when putting a manned object into orbit and returning it safely to earth.[1]

A Woman in Space? Not a NASA Project

On their own, Lovelace and Flickinger decided to find out. This was not a NASA project.

In America, women pilots known as WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) had flown in World War II. But since the war’s end, women had been denied access to the cockpits of military airplanes. In 1957 only a handful of women were flying bigger aircraft and they were civilians.

Jerrie Cobb was one of them. She “realized that ‘higher, faster, and farther’ now meant something totally different since a satellite had been launched,” Martha Ackmann writes in her 2003 book The Mercury Thirteen.[2] Jerrie recognized Sputnik meant humanity and flight were entering a new realm.

Jerrie Cobb. Photo courtesy of the Ninety-Nines Museum of Women Pilots, Oklahoma City

Cobb took her first flight at age 12 and earned her pilot’s license at 16. In 1952, she began ferrying aircraft internationally. Her first assignment was to deliver a USAF AT-6 military trainer aircraft to the Peruvian Air Force. [More about that in Part 2 next week!]

[Jerrie Cobb in the cockpit, with an aeronautical chart.]

Scientist/Pilot Also Recruited

Sarah Gorelick also caught the meaning of Sputnik. Sarah graduated from the University of Denver with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and minors in physics and chemistry. Long before today’s acronym, STEM, was coined, Sarah excelled in all four fields—Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. For today’s young women who want to specialize in STEM, Sarah proved an early role model. In her day, women were NOT encouraged to enter the technical world, but a few, like Sarah, did.

Sarah Gorelick Ratley. Photo courtesy of the International Women’s Air & Space Museum, Cleveland

She began flying at age 15 and, like Cobb, became an accomplished pilot. Sarah was an electrical engineer with AT&T. By 1957, she had flown in five consecutive Powder Puff Derbies — the race more formally known as the All-Woman’s Transcontinental Air Race (AWTAR).

By 1960 these two, both 29-years-old, both accomplished pilots, held jobs women normally didn’t hold. And they were about to be tapped for the same experimental testing program the astronauts had just completed.

[Sarah Gorelick Ratley]

Jerrie & Sarah: the Right Stuff

Cobb was known in aviation circles. Dr. Lovelace wanted to test her. After the seven male astronauts completed their testing, it was Jerrie’s turn. Lovelace put her through the same regimen. Her results proved to be exceptional. She tested on par with the seven men. He and General Flickinger decided to test more female pilots.

They “wanted women who had racked up more than 1,000 hours in the air,” Ackmann points out.[3] The two men sought Cobb’s input to find other qualified women.

Between January and August 1961, 18 women — all with more than 1,000 flight hours — underwent the testing regimen. Sarah Ratley arrived at Lovelace’s clinic in Albuquerque on June 19, 1961. She passed the grueling week-long program that tested her stamina, her grit, her ability to cope with long periods of solitude and — the worst one of all — the equilibrium test. For that, Sarah endured having ice water shot into her ear with a syringe.

She passed with flying colors. Sarah and 11 other women pilots qualified and joined Jerrie Cobb in the program that came to be known as the Mercury 13.

To be continued next week…


[1] Martha Ackmann, The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight. 2003: New York City, Random House, p.11.

[2] Martha Ackmann, The Mercury 13, p.8

[3] Martha Ackmann, The Mercury 13, p.72.


Jerrie Cobb photo courtesy the Ninety-Nines Museum of Women Pilots, Oklahoma City

Sarah Gorelick Ratley photo courtesy the International Women’s Air & Space Museum, Cleveland

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