Initially, the astronaut program criteria did not specify gender, because no one thought women would qualify.
Initially, the astronaut program criteria did not specify gender, because no one thought women would qualify.
Illustration by Michael Koelsch

The Mercury 13 Women Were Ready for Space, But NASA Never Gave Them a Chance

At age 12, Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb persuaded her father to teach her to fly, zipping over Wichita Falls, Texas, in a two-seater made of cloth and aluminum poles. At 18 she held a commercial pilot’s license. By the time she was 29 she was a flight instructor, had ferried dozens of army surplus planes to Europe and South America, had amassed more than 10,000 hours of flying time and had broken three world records for flight.

When she was 14, Sarah Ratley stole her older sister’s birth certificate to convince her flight instructor she was old enough to fly solo. She fell in love with it because the first flight she ever took, she looked down and saw her Kansas high school, her town, and it all looked so small. When she was in a plane, it didn’t matter that she was good at math and didn’t fit in at school.

At 16, Gene Nora Jessen was riding along as a member of the Civil Air Patrol when the pilot gave her the stick and let her fly for a few minutes. He said she was a natural, and Jessen decided she would be a pilot. Her family didn’t even own a car, but she scraped together the money for lessons and became a flight instructor at the University of Oklahoma before she had even graduated from the college.

Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk never seemed to fit in anywhere outside of her parents’ home in Taos, New Mexico, but when she slid into the pilot’s seat of a plane at 16, she felt like Amelia Earhart, right down to the haircut. Within three years she was flying professionally, and by 22 she was a flight instructor at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, with hundreds more hours already logged in the skies.

These women, some of the top female pilots in the United States, were not anomalies. The pool was a small one compared to the number of men who flew planes, but when Dr. Randolph Lovelace, a pioneer in aeromedicine, decided to select female pilots to undergo the physical testing to become astronaut candidates, he still had more than 700 to choose from.

The 13 women he ultimately selected to undergo punishing physical and psychological testing — everything from swallowing three feet of rubber hose and bicycling in place past the physical point of exhaustion to having ice-cold water shot into their eardrums at ten-second intervals — at the groundbreaking Lovelace Foundation for Medical Education and Research in Albuquerque, New Mexico, were some of the most experienced, accomplished pilots in the country. It made sense that these women should take the next step and go to outer space.

But it was 1959.

It would be another 20 years before NASA allowed women into the astronaut program and more than 20 years before the first female astronaut, Sally Ride, made it to space.

“[Cobb] was ahead of her time. All of the women selected for that program were,” Margaret Weitekamp, a historian who wrote one of the first books on the Mercury 13 program, says. “Cobb was fantastically qualified, but she was a woman and that meant she was never going to be an astronaut. That was the way it was.”

While many of the women, all pilots, selected to go through physical testing to become astronaut candidates believed the tests offered a real chance at space travel, in reality Cobb and the other 12 female pilots who were ultimately tested ended up being show ponies, the lady astronauts who posed for photos but never got close to being launched into space.

Later dubbed the Mercury 13, many of the women have spent the following decades living their lives and sometimes pushing back against a story that wants to remember them only for the one thing they didn’t do.

***
Mercury 13 members Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Ratley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman gathered to watch the space shuttle Discovery launch in 1995.
Mercury 13 members Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Ratley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman gathered to watch the space shuttle Discovery launch in 1995.
Photo by NASA

Women have been involved in aviation since the first airplanes were invented. In the early days they were called aviatrices, and while females were generally not allowed to fly commercially, many made names for themselves performing in aerial shows, competing in air races and pulling off feats by establishing records in distance and aerobatics, the kinds of accomplishments that would get even more attention when people learned a woman had done them.

When World War II broke out, women were not allowed in combat, but female pilots joined the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, a paramilitary outfit. Over the course of the war, more than 1,000 female pilots flew every type of military aircraft, logging more than 60 million miles collectively. The women ferried planes from factories to Army Air Force bases, chauffeured military brass and worked as test pilots throughout the war.

Passengers were known to refuse to ride on a plane flown by a female pilot, and the parents of Jerri Truhill, one of the members of the Mercury 13, threatened to put her in a nunnery when she announced she wanted to be a pilot, but it wasn’t unheard of for women to fly. As the United States and Russia entered the space race in the late 1950s and the federal space program was established, it was not an enormous leap for Lovelace, already a pioneer in high-altitude and near-space flight studies (he once leaped out of a plane at 36,000 feet to investigate the effects of a high-altitude parachute jump) to consider women going into outer space a real possibility.

Lovelace actually felt women might be better suited to the task since, on average, women are lighter and smaller and require less food and oxygen than men, creating potentially crucial differences in the weight and amount of supplies needed to send a human to space when every ounce a rocket carries requires that much more rocket fuel to get it off the launchpad. Women are also known to have fewer heart problems and statistically have tested better than men in isolation studies.

Astronaut candidates were supposed to be U.S. citizens who held college degrees, were jet test pilots, were under 35, were less than six feet tall, and had the psychological mettle to handle spaceflight and the physical stamina to pass Lovelace’s tests, but there were no formal stipulations about gender.

Lovelace shopped his idea around to the military and to NASA, where he had already designed and administered the series of punishing physical tests the Mercury Seven candidates were given, but no one was interested in backing studies on how women would fare in space. The female astronaut candidate testing got off the ground only when Jackie Cochran, a wealthy female pilot who had served with the WASP, agreed to fund the tests. With Cochran’s backing, Lovelace started exploring whether putting women into space was a real option, starting with Cobb.

“Randy Lovelace was, in many ways, a visionary,” Weitekamp says. “His interest in women participating was very grounded in that time — he was thinking they would be someone to do the secretarial work, the pink-collar jobs he thought would be a part of space. But he also started investigating women and found that women’s physiologies are just as capable as men’s. That was new.”

In February 1960 Cobb arrived at the Lovelace Clinic for the first round of tests. Just over a year before that, the Mercury Seven, the first astronaut candidates, had been there for the same thing, an experience that astronaut Michael Collins later described as a series of indignities and uncertainties in which the subject was “poked, prodded, pummeled and pierced” and where “no orifice is inviolate, no privacy respected.”

For a week Cobb was given more than 30 physical and psychological tests, measuring everything from the amount of blood in her body to the health of her heart, which doctors investigated by hooking her up to electrocardiogram sensors, strapping her to a table and tilting her body at angles that would strain and expose any weaknesses in the organ, if she had any.

Once she had completed the first portion of testing at the Lovelace Clinic in February 1960, Cobb went to Pensacola, Florida, where the U.S. Navy gave Lovelace’s team special permission to use its aeromedical facilities, including centrifugal machines and pressure chambers, to conduct more tests.

Cobb also helped Lovelace comb through a pool of roughly 700 female pilots before Lovelace ultimately invited 24 women to take the astronaut candidate test. When Funk heard about the testing, she called Lovelace and asked to be included. “My mind lit up with the idea of going to space. I decided I was going to do it immediately,” Funk says now.

Ultimately, the group that completed the first phase of testing was composed of 13 women ranging in age from 23 to 41. Some were professional working pilots, some were homemakers, Janey Hart was a senator’s wife and the mother of eight children, but they were all remarkably accomplished pilots with thousands of hours of flight experience. “The Mercury Seven had just been selected, the first men who would become astronauts,” Jessen says. “The magazines and the newspapers were full of stories on them. It was all anyone could talk about. To have even a bit of knowledge about the space program, to be involved and participate in some way, it was something I had to do. I think we all felt that way.”

Nobody was supposed to know about the women’s testing program until Lovelace presented his initial findings based on Cobb’s test results at a conference in Switzerland at the end of 1960, but word had spread in the small world of female pilots about who had made it through the first round of testing.

During an annual air race in California, the women crammed together into a tiny motel room and Cobb locked the door and pulled the curtains. Then they sat together and whispered about their experiences at Lovelace’s clinic, about possibly becoming astronauts. “We were giddy at the idea,” Ratley says now. “We could hardly believe it was possible, except we all knew that these were the astronaut tests and we were taking them.”

In 1961 Jessen quit her job as a flight instructor after her boss refused to give her time off to attend the second phase of testing, which involved Navy jets at the base in Pensacola, Florida. Funk was packed and had already bought her plane ticket to Florida. Ratley, who was working as an engineer, a difficult position for a woman to get at that time, didn’t hesitate when she informed her employer she would be out for two weeks in the middle of a project to complete the testing.

But five days before they were due to arrive at the naval base in September 1961, a telegram went out summarily informing them the testing was not going to happen. Navy officials had allowed Cobb to use their facilities, but when it crept up the chain of command that a dozen more women would soon be arriving for the same thing, they asked NASA officials if the federal space agency thought such testing, and the expense of using the facilities, were a necessary part of the agency’s mission to get to space.

Cobb hopped on a plane to Washington, D.C. and tracked down the chief of naval operations, who explained the tests had been canceled because NASA did not want to test women. Unbeknownst to the women, NASA administrator James Webb had sent a letter to the Navy disavowing any involvement in the testing, and the Navy, unwilling to spend money on testing that didn’t have firm backing, refused to move forward. Lovelace, who would end up being appointed NASA’s chief of space medicine, withdrew his request.

The women never had a chance. While some of the female candidates were still in the middle of the first phase of Lovelace’s program, President John Kennedy stood up before a joint session of Congress in May 1961 and announced that the United States was going to the moon. “That was it. For NASA, after that, there’s no longer room for experimenting; everything is focused on this goal,” Weitekamp says.

From that point on, NASA was locked on making the moon jump and using white, Protestant, jet test pilots, mostly from the Midwest, to do so. NASA was in a race with the Soviets for domination in space, and there was no longer room or interest in pursuing any avenues of research that did not lead directly to an astronaut planting an American flag on the moon.

Only Cobb had been allowed to actually finish all three phases of the physical testing. She had passed with scores that rivaled those of one of the Mercury Seven’s top scorers, John Glenn, but it didn’t matter.

Jerrie Cobb wanted to become an astronaut because she had the “urge to infinity.”
Jerrie Cobb wanted to become an astronaut because she had the “urge to infinity.”
Photo by NASA

Months later, in July 1962, Cobb slid into a chair next to Janey Hart, Senator Phil Hart’s wife, who had joined with Cobb to try to force Congress to revive the program. The pair had worked for months, writing letters to Kennedy and to then-vice president Lyndon Johnson, who was heavily involved in the political side of NASA, and appearing in the offices of scores of congressmen, arguing that women deserved to be included in the astronaut program. Their efforts garnered some interest from Congress, and a special subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics was convened.

She was reticent by nature, but Cobb knew how to play the game. Whenever she was flying in an air race or attempting to break a world record, she would comb her hair, dab on some lipstick and slip back into her high heels before climbing out of the plane to pose demurely and talk to the media. She fielded questions about everything from her cooking skills to her measurements to her fear of grasshoppers, keeping an enigmatic smile in place at all times to cover her nerves. She presented a good front before the congressmen.

Sitting in the hearing, conscious of a clutch of reporters and photographers, Cobb kicked off her heels and tried to get comfortable, staring up at the dais where the congressmen were settled in. Cobb and Hart seemed to gain some traction with the subcommittee on the first day of testimony.

But on the second day, astronaut John Glenn, who had become the first astronaut to be launched into manned orbit that February, appeared before the committee.

Glenn was a national hero, and his words carried enormous weight. He argued that testing women or doing anything that took funding away from the main mission to go to the moon was a waste of time and resources. “I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized,” Glenn told the subcommittee. “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.”

The subcommittee sided with Glenn.

In 1963 the Soviets sent a woman into space, and with that feat even the novel idea of a lady astronaut was gone. In 1965 Lovelace died in a plane crash when his pilot flew into a canyon wall, and that was the end of any chance of reviving the program.

All the women dealt with the disappointment differently. Hart focused on the nascent women’s rights movement and lost interest in the idea of space. Ratley continued to study engineering and later got married. Jessen became a pilot for stunt shows designed to sell airplanes, where she met her husband, and went on to start a flight school that she still runs with him. Most of the women were able to move on with their lives, but not all.

Funk ran off to Europe, she says. She didn’t even look at a newspaper or follow the congressional hearings over the question of women in space, she says now, but once she came back, she started gradually finding ways to go through the physical tests, calling in favors with university friends, sometimes just cold-calling people and asking if they would run tests on her.

And then there was Cobb. Hailed by many as one of the greatest female pilots in history, and one of the top pilots of her generation, she never went to space, never flew, and when she lost her last chance, she left everything behind, finding it too painful even to speak of the Mercury 13, or her dream of space. And then she disappeared.

Sort of.

***
Wally Funk continues to look for a path to spaceflight.
Wally Funk continues to look for a path to spaceflight.
Photo by Jason Gilmore

Legend has it that Cobb is living in the Amazon with the indigenous tribes. Some believe she’s dead. None of it is true.

Cobb accepted a job with NASA as a consultant on the matter of women going to space, but in 1965 she quit and flew down to the jungles of the Amazon bringing food, clothing, shoes and basic medical supplies to the tribes living there. She established the Jerrie Cobb Foundation to handle donations that funded her missionary work and spent the following decades, more than 40 years, making countless runs to drop off more clothes and medical supplies and seeking to convert anyone whenever she spied a chance. (In 1981 an Oklahoma congressman nominated her for a Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian work, although she did not win it.)

But she wasn’t living in the Amazon full-time. In the 1960s Cobb shared an old three-story house with Ivy Coffee, an Oklahoma journalist who had chronicled Cobb’s career since Cobb first started making headlines in the little town of Ponca City. Janet Reitman, a writer who would eventually be given a co-author credit for Cobb’s first autobiography, Woman Into Space, was also staying at the house, doing research. When Funk showed up in Oklahoma City to go through the isolation test, which was conducted in a tank of water in the dark for as long as the person in the tank could stand it, she stayed with Cobb.

From the moment she arrived, Funk felt Cobb was sizing her up. The two trained together, doing situps and pushups and going for runs in the days leading up to the isolation test, each keeping an eye on the other, trying to see who was in better shape. But aside from telling Funk what she might expect from the third round of physical tests in Pensacola, Cobb didn’t say much. “There was a lot of praying around that house,” Funk says now. “She prayed and told me to do pushups, and that was about all she said.”

While Cobb was devoted to her work in the jungle, she still wanted to become an astronaut, an urge that quietly stayed inside her for the next four decades. She kept herself fit, competed in air races and appeared at air shows, published a pair of autobiographies, granted interviews to reporters, and even allowed some journalists and writers to travel with her while they worked on stories about her. When she wasn’t in the Amazon, she lived in a modest home in Florida and kept a place in Oklahoma. She was often identified as the woman who almost became an astronaut, and she didn’t seem to shy away from that description.

Meanwhile, Funk gradually annoyed the other members of the group with her continued insistence that she was going to space. When women were finally accepted into NASA in 1978, Funk started applying again. She sent in her application four times before giving up. Her relentless drive has left the other remaining members of the Mercury 13 perplexed. “She did so many things, and accomplished so much, but she just can’t seem to get over this,” Ratley says.

Funk turned her home into a museum of her own accomplishments and NASA swag.
Funk turned her home into a museum of her own accomplishments and NASA swag.
Photo by Jason Gilmore

While Funk was trying everything she could think of to become an astronaut, Cobb bided her time. And then, in 1998 it was announced that Glenn, now a senator, was going to be launched on the space shuttle Discovery to allow scientists to examine how space affects the human body, since they had Glenn’s Lovelace test results, which had chronicled the state of his body down to the smallest details when he became an astronaut.

Cobb saw her chance and “came out of the Amazon,” according to dozens of stories written about her at the time. She promoted her second autobiography, published in 1997, granted scores of interviews, contacted national women’s rights organizations and even asked the remaining members of the Mercury 13 to sign a petition she then submitted to NASA, asking them to include her in the age study since NASA had access to the same information on her body through Lovelace’s tests.

NASA officials were not persuaded. Glenn went back to space. Cobb never went.

“Jerrie really believed in it, and she may have wanted it more than anyone else,” Ratley says. “Even in her seventies she was still trying. But after that she became more of an introvert. She was always that way; you’d turn your back and she’d be gone in a flash, but she withdrew even more after Glenn got to go.”

Al Hallonquist, a retired police officer and amateur space historian, met the remaining Mercury 13 when he attended the space shuttle launch in 1999, when astronaut Eileen Collins became the first female shuttle commander.

Most of the members of the group were there and Hallonquist became an informal manager for them, running a website devoted to their stories and acting as a mediator when reporters and people from the entertainment industry made contact. “There have been tons of people preying on the girls,” Hallonquist says. “Every time the public has remembered them, people come out of the woodwork and try to get things out of them. People want to use the story for themselves, so I’ve tried to help vet people and protect them.”

All kinds of characters have popped up over the years. A producer who optioned their story rights in the 1990s dubbed the group the Mercury 13, and then did nothing else with the material. David Adair, an AM radio host who espouses various conspiracy theories about space, including claims that Area 51 is full of aliens and that the moon is hollow, befriended the remaining members of the Mercury 13 starting in the 1990s. He eventually purchased the rights to their stories and co-wrote a screenplay that he’s been shopping around Hollywood for years.

Some of the women had already died, but those who remained were all becoming a part of history as they aged, a story to tell.

Except for Cobb. A woman named Ruth Lummis became her representative and Lummis began to handle all visitors, phone calls and emails, to the point that no one was able to contact Cobb, not even the members of the Mercury 13, without going through Lummis.

Cobb and Lummis settled in Sun City Center, Florida, a senior retirement community just south of Tampa, shortly after Glenn’s launch. Jack Symonds lived across the street from Cobb in Sun City Center for a few years, beginning in 2001, and Cobb, always out working in the yard, blond hair in her trademark ponytail, struck up a friendship with Symonds. They would sit on Cobb’s porch talking, and the conversation often turned to flying. Once it got to flying, Cobb invariably got angry about NASA all over again.

“She really wanted to do it, to get in there, and she knew that it was never going to happen after Glenn went back up and she still wasn’t allowed,” Symonds recalls. “She was so proud of what she had done, and was certain she could have gone to space. She was bitter, just vehement, about Glenn’s part in all of this.”

Adair hired a private investigator to track Cobb down in 2012 when she was being inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. He persuaded local law enforcement to conduct a welfare check on Cobb, and flew down to Florida to tag along. The officers pulled up to a neat yellow house surrounded by brightly colored, butterfly-attracting bushes that Cobb shares with Lummis in Sun City Center.

Answering the door was Cobb, now a small, elderly woman with short brown hair. She stood there, confused by the presence of sheriff’s deputies and Adair, struggling to hear (she’s had severe hearing loss in recent years). Once she understood what they were asking, she told them she was fine and only wished to be left alone.

“She was a fabulous pilot, but that was never enough,” Adair says. “After so many years of rejection, I think she just said screw it, and I can’t say I blame her.”

For weeks I attempted to contact Cobb through Lummis, who politely maintained throughout our exchanges that Cobb was in the Amazonian jungles with her indigenous friends, beyond the reach of technology or even the most basic forms of communication, and was unlikely to return anytime soon. But over the course of my reporting, the people I spoke with about the Mercury 13 led me to believe that the story of an 87-year-old woman taking up semipermanent residence with Amazonian tribes was just that, a good story.

After repeated attempts to talk more with Lummis, who responded only to emails because, she said, she can’t hear well enough to use the telephone, and who never answered any of my more detailed questions about Cobb, I had put enough of the puzzle together to become convinced that not only was Cobb not in the Amazon, but she was actually living in a retirement community in Florida, hiding in plain sight.

I flew to Tampa and motored my rental car to Sun City Center, about 45 minutes away. (It’s a community designed for older residents, where almost everyone is at least 54 and where people are legally allowed to drive on the main roads in golf carts. Each morning the line to speak with the Walgreens pharmacist stretches across the store.)

I pulled up to the address I had dug up, hoping I would find Cobb and Lummis both at home.

Nobody answered the door, and after standing there trying to peer past the tightly shut blinds over the windows, I decided to check around and see if I was even on the right track.

Neighbors confirmed that Cobb lived there. They also informed me I had just missed her. And that was pretty much all they would tell me. Cobb’s neighbors have formed a fiercely protective cocoon around her.

As I knocked on doors, notebook in hand to ask about Cobb, now 87, some claimed she does not live there, that they’ve never heard of her, and urged me, in a range of tones from tolerance to exasperation, to go away. Many shifted their eyes away and shrugged, maintaining they knew nothing about the woman who has lived in the house at the end of the street for more than a decade. One woman kept her ear glued to a portable phone while I tried to ask her questions, and then cut the entire conversation off with a sharp shake of her head, informing me that she had nothing to say to anyone about Cobb. “You get out of here. None of us are going to tell you anything,” she said before firmly closing the front door.

Others admitted Cobb does live there, or at least has, but they refused to say anything else about her. “She’s not in the jungle, and she’s getting older, as we all are, but Jerrie is of sound mind. Jerrie is just a private person. I can’t tell you anything else. I will not violate her privacy,” Mary Strehar, a longtime friend and neighbor, said. “I think 90 percent of the people on this block have no idea who she really is.”

Meanwhile, Cobb has not flown a plane on her own in years, but she and Lummis trekked across the country to see the total eclipse in August. Lummis has yet to reply to any of my post-Florida emails.

Jessen deliberately turned away from being too strongly identified with something she never got to do. She has continued to fly, still runs a flight school with her husband in Ohio, and has written a number of books on her own experiences and on female pilots. But she’s never written about being one of the Mercury 13. “It was never going to happen and I knew that. And when it didn’t happen, that was hard but I got over it. I moved on.”

Ratley says she hasn’t let it define her either, because she saw what happened to Funk and then to Cobb. “I always had my hopes that NASA would change its mind and I would get to go, but I also went on with my life,” Ratley says. “There was more to my life than something that didn’t happen. There had to be; otherwise I might not have gotten over it.”

Funk lives in a house in Grapevine, Texas, so close to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport that huge passenger airliners are always buzzing by overhead. She has turned her home into an ad hoc museum, with memorabilia from her childhood in New Mexico, her career in aviation and her quest to become an astronaut, or at least to get into space, occupying every available surface. A TV tuned to the NASA station plays 24 hours a day.

After NASA rejected Funk’s final astronaut application, she decided to find her own way to space. She went to Star City, Russia, where the cosmonauts train, in the early 2000s. (In a video done by the Travel Channel, Funk is seen in a zero-gravity plane, pushing off from the floor, thrusting herself so high she touches the ceiling of the plane as a burly Russian scrambles to pull her down and away so she won’t fall or hit anyone else on her way down.)

The first outfit that she contracted to take her to space went out of business, but when Richard Branson announced Virgin Galactic would take private flights to space, Funk paid $200,000 to secure her spot. Funk already knows which seat she prefers (one closest to the pilot’s seat), but it’s still unclear when or if she will get to go. Branson recently announced the company plans to start flights next year, but the flights were supposed to begin launching a decade ago. Asked what she will do if she never goes to space, Funk’s eyes widen and begin to fill. “I don’t know. I don’t think about it. I’m going, end of story.”

Strehar tried to explain Cobb’s position before she too refused to comment further, noting that Cobb was willing to do anything to go to space, but once the chance was gone, Cobb was done with all of it, and that even speaking of it became painful. “It’s not her nature to be open. She’s proud of her accomplishments, but there are the books where you can read about that. She does not wish to talk about it. That’s all I can tell you.”

dianna.wray@houstonpress.com

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