Sarah Meets Eight More of “The Mercury 13”

 In Sarah Byrn Rickman

Wally Becomes One of  “The Mercury 13”

Before Wally Funk became my first flight instructor in 1991, she distinguished herself — 30 years earlier. Back in 1961 — she was one of the 13 women pilots who hoped to be America’s first female astronauts. These women are known today as “The Mercury 13.”

When America and NASA entered the “space race” with the Russians in the late 1950s, it was assumed that men would carry our flag into that great beyond known as Outer Space. And that job did fall to seven carefully selected military test pilots who successfully passed the physical and psychological tests to qualify for Project Mercury. These astronauts became known as “The Mercury Seven.”

Two physicians, Randolph Lovelace of the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, NM, and Air Force Brigadier General and surgeon Don Flickinger, were in the forefront with the Mercury Project.

Wally Tries On Space Suit at Space Camp, 1991

The Sensory Isolation of Outer Space

Lovelace designed and administered the tests for the seven astronaut candidates. The primary focus was the men’s physical aptitude for space flight. In the meantime, Flickinger worked with the Aeromedical Laboratory at Wright Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio, to develop tests to “measure how a potential astronaut might respond to the unique stresses of outer space.” This included “a sensory isolation test calculated to gauge how an astronaut candidate reacted to the “simulated silence and stillness of space.”

The Mercury Seven program moved ahead. Many of us well remember the space launches of the early 1960s in which these men were the pilots and — yes — guinea pigs. And they were our heroes.

Both Flickinger and Lovelace happened to think that women, too, might be good candidates for space flight — that women might even be better at dealing with the loneliness, the solitude of space. But even though the space program was a civilian project — not military — NASA was not interested in pursuing the potential use of females in space flight. So the two doctors decided to test a woman candidate as part of their own independent study.

Ackmann’s ‘The Mercury 13′ Source for This Blog

*Note: Material in this and the following paragraphs are from pages 37-50, The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight, by Martha Ackmann: New York, Random House Publishing Group, 2003.

At an Air Force Association meeting the fall of 1959, Lovelace and Flickinger met their ideal candidate, 28-year-old Jerrie Cobb. She was an “accomplished and motivated pilot, willing to take chances.” Flickinger wanted Cobb to undergo the same drills and testing the seven male astronauts already had undergone. He planned to compare her results to those of the men.

On the invitation of Dr. Lovelace, Jerrie reported to the Lovelace Clinic on February 15, 1960. She passed everything with flying colors! Then things REALLY got interesting.

Obviously, more than one female subject was needed. Flickinger asked Cobb to suggest other women pilots who might be qualified for testing. In the meantime, famed woman aviatrix Jacqueline Cochran, who had known Lovelace for many of years, got wind of the program. She contacted him. She wanted to know everything. By November 1960, somehow, she had become his “special consultant for women in space.” [The Mercury 13, page 81]

Funding Needed for Further Testing of Women

Testing more women would be costly. Cochran anted up the money.

That changed things. Cochran had a reputation for messing up other people’s already well-thought-out plans. Most of the 24 additional women invited to undergo the testing were suggested by Cobb or Cochran. But the list did included some who wrote to Lovelace directly. And that is when Wally Funk enters the picture.

Twenty-one year old Wally had read about Jerrie Cobb’s testing in a Life magazine article. She wanted to be part of this and wrote to Lovelace. She already had 3,000 flying hours. Lovelace was looking for women with at least 1,000 flight hours. He invited her to take part. Wally in turn told Gene Nora (pronounced Janora) Stumbough about the testing when she ran into her at an Oklahoma collegiate aviation gathering. Gene Nora, 24, also wrote to Lovelace and was accepted. They were the two youngest of the Mercury 13.

Of the 24 invited, six declined, leaving 18 candidates.

Eighteen More Women Pilots Tested

Between January and August of 1961, those 18 women pilots underwent the same battery of physiological screening tests, as had the Project Mercury astronauts. Jan Dietrich was the first to be tested —the week of January 17, 1961. She passed.

Wally was the second to arrive at the Lovelace Clinic, February 28. She, too, passed. Following Wally those who successfully passed the testing were: Marion Dietrich (Jan’s twin sister) and Rhea Hurrle (Allison Woltman) in March; Jerri Sloan (Truhill), B Steadman and Irene Leverton in April; Sarah Gorelick (Ratley) and Myrtle Cagle in June; Janey Hart and Gene Nora Stumbough (Jessen) in July; and Jean Hixson in August. Twelve qualified.

Jerrie Cobb and the 12 add up to “The Mercury 13” — also known informally as the First Lady Astronaut Trainees or “FLATS”.

That the program was canceled later that August was a shock to the women and became a harsh reality they had to deal with. By then, magazine and newspaper articles had made the public well aware of the fact that women WERE undergoing these tests and what it might mean.

Expectations Too High, Congress Enters the Picture

Unfortunately, expectations of how these women pilots might be used in America’s journey into space were blown out of proportion, misrepresented, and also misunderstood. This led to Congressional hearings in 1962. Jerrie Cobb and Janey Hart (wife of Michigan Senator Phil Hart) testified as to the worth of the Mercury 13 program. Nothing changed. The 13 women got no further and it would be 21 years before America put a woman into space.

Those who want to know the real, whole, and accurately told story of these 13 women should read Martha Ackmann’s fine book, The Mercury 13. As already noted, Ackmann’s book is the source for much of this article.

Yours truly, in addition to Wally, also knew B Steadman well. And I was fortunate enough to meet Janey Hart, Myrtle Cagle, Irene Leverton, Rhea Woltman and Jerrie Cobb at the 30th Reunion in 1991 — as well as Gene Nora Jessen and Sarah Ratley later through the Ninety-Nines. I learned a lot from talking personally with these women.

In next week’s blog, you’ll read more about the Mercury 13. You are invited to meet some of them virtually on Feb. 27, when the Ninety-Nines Museum of Women pilots presents THE MERCURY 13: SIXTY YEARS AFTER.

Here’s the Invitation!

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