The true story of the Mercury 13 and the women who never made it to space

Jerrie Cobb, one of the first women to undergo testing at the Lovelace Medical Center, is strapped to a tilt-machine to test for heart defects.

The tests were exhaustive and . And Funk still remembers everything.

“They said, ‘Your body is going to have a hard time trying to pass all these things,'” she tells me over the phone from her home in Texas “I said, ‘Just give it to me!’ So the first thing was I just got strapped to the chair, and they injected 10-degree water into my right ear. Whoo — that’ll give you a jolt!”

There were X Rays, vision tests and tests designed to induce motion sickness. She underwent psychological profiling and a gynecological exam (the only test that the Mercury 7 astronauts didn’t have to do). She had tubes passed down her throat to measure gastric juices, and electrodes put into her muscles to test how they would spasm. And then she was put in a sensory deprivation tank to test her mental resilience, with nothing but two foam bricks to keep her afloat.

“There was no light, there was no noise there was nothing … I couldn’t tell up from down,” Funk says. “I think they were thinking I was going to hallucinate, but I didn’t.”

She lasted in there 10 hours and 35 minutes.

According to Margaret Weitekamp, chair of the Space History department at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, the 13 women didn’t just meet the standard set by the men, they passed with flying colors. And even more impressive, according to Weitekamp, was the fact the women went through the program alone or in pairs, without any colleagues to compete against or cheer them on.

“When you compare the tests, you can see that women have better cardiopulmonary health,” she told me. “They did historically better in these tests and in others in isolation and in sensory deprivation testing. I think it’s even more remarkable how well the women did, given that their testing conditions were in some ways much more difficult than what the men went through.”

But despite the success of the program, the women never made it into the elite ranks of NASA’s astronaut program. They were due to go for further testing at a military facility in Pensacola, Florida, but the program was shut down before they got the chance.

Wally Funk (right), at a Virgin Galactic event in New Mexico. Wally Funk was one of 13 women who went through Lovelace’s Women in Space Program in 1961 and she still wants to fly in space — she has paid for a place on Virgin Galactic’s waiting list to become a private astronaut.

All these years later, Wally Funk still doesn’t fully understand what happened, or why there was so much resistance to having women in the space program.

The answer is complex. It’s a story of sexism in the 1960s. Of a congressional hearing and the weigh-in of Mercury 7 astronaut John Glenn who compared female astronauts to his mother trying out for a football team. And it’s a chain of events that included a letter from President Lyndon Johnson with the hand-scrawled words, “Let’s stop this now!”

To hear the full story, check out Episode 2 of Making Space: The Female Frontier. (You can hear the episode in the player above.) We hear Wally Funk’s first hand account of the female astronaut testing program that never was, and find out just why it would take another two decades after Lovelace’s tests before an American woman would finally go to space.

Find Making Space: The Female Frontier on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen.

First published on Sept. 16, 2020 at 5:00 a.m. PT.

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