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Sally Ride


Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, passed away last month at age 61.

Before Sally Ride, Mercury 13 pioneered the way for women astronauts

by Joanna Carver
Aug 21, 2012

Jerrie Cobb


Pilot Jerrie Cobb was one of 13 women secretly tested at the Lovelace Clinic with hopes of becoming an astronaut.

Wally Funk

Courtesy Wally Funk

Wally Funk, another of the Mercury 13, has been an aviator most of her life and has plans to finally go into space next year with Virgin Galactic, a British company that conducts civilian space flights.


In 1963, Russian parachutist Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space, beating the Americans by 20 years.

Eileen Collins


Eileen Collins, the first woman to command the space shuttle, invited the Mercury 13 to her 1999 launch.

Mamta Patel

Courtesy Mamta Patel

Engineer Mamta Patel promotes women in science through the Women@NASA program. She worked at the Johnson Space Center training astronauts and said the gender gap in the sciences is still a big problem.

Nancy Roman 2

Courtesy Nancy Roman

Nancy Roman was the chief of observational astronomy at NASA from 1959 to 1970. She now works to encourage girls to take an interest in science.

Ann Devereaux

Courtesy Ann Devereaux

Ann Devereaux is an engineer with NASA's Curiosity mission, which is currently exploring Mars.

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Astronaut Sally Ride took off with the space shuttle Challenger on June 18, 1983, and gave the world an unforgettable image—the first American woman in space, floating through her work, a crown of brown curls flying around her head.

Ride’s death from pancreatic cancer this summer leaves a lasting legacy of trailblazing in space and close to home.

Grief over the loss of the 61 year-old explorer struck NASA engineer Nagin Cox with a quieting moment of realization.

“It’s one of those cases where you don’t know how you feel until she passes away,” said Cox, who navigated NASA’s robotic rover Curiosity from Earth to Mars. “I immediately stopped and put my hand on my heart.”

Yet a few of her younger co-workers didn’t know that Ride was the first American woman in space and worked for Sally Ride Science, the California non-profit that encourages girls to pursue science.

“People started sending out e-mails at work,” Cox said. “There was a moment of silence. She meant a lot in that she showed us all a possibility, that it could be done and in terms we all found feasible.”
Ride made two trips on the Space Shuttle between 1983 and 1984 and served on the boards investigating the 1986 Challenger and 2003 Columbia disasters.

But on the front of the first woman in space ,the Russians beat the U.S. by 20 years. In 1963, the Soviet Union sent parachutist Valentina Tereshkova into orbit.

That didn’t have to be, adding to the Soviet firsts with Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, the first human sent into space.

What most people don’t know is that the U.S. passed on sending 13 women into space after they had successfully and secretly passed test after test at the Lovelace Clinic in New Mexico in 1962, winning their wings as astronauts. But, in the end, their gender closed the door to space flights.

Martha Ackmann, author of the 2003 book The Mercury 13, discovered the story of the women in 1998, when Mercury astronaut John Glenn went back into space.

“I’m a big believer in looking for stories in paragraph nine,” she said. “It was pretty far back in the paper and way down buried in the story was this paragraph saying John Glenn was getting a second chance to go into space, Jerrie Cobb who was secretly tested in the 1960s was saying ‘When do I get my first chance?’”

Cobb was among the Mercury 13.

Tests were designed to evaluate her and the other women’s physical endurance, ability and mental capacity. They included reactions to zero gravity conditions, gyroscopic spinning and and isolation tank plus batteries of physical tests.

One involved drinking mildly radioactive water, according to Mercury 13 pilot Wally Funk, who is now a flight instructor. 

In the early days of the space program, astronauts were chosen from a pool of test pilots, who were exclusively male. The Mercury 13 were chosen from among female pilots. They were given the same physiological screening tests at the Lovelace Clinic in New Mexico as the guys—the Mercury 7. Of 25 women tested, 13 passed.

Cobb and fellow pilot Jane Hart testified before the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics in favor of women becoming astronauts. However, their efforts were undermined by the testimony of celebrated pilot Jacqueline Cochran as well as that of Mercury 7 astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, who spoke against the notion of women in space. This along with the powerful influence of then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson put a temporary but heartbreaking seal on the possibility of female astronauts.

Ackmann recalled a pleasant interview with Glenn for her 2003 book. He was very willing to talk and clearly intellectually vital and curious, someone who would naturally be chosen to be an astronaut, she said.


Ackmann asked Glenn what he meant when he said in his testimony, "I think this gets back to the way our social order is organized, really. 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. It may be undesirable."

"He said [he] was describing what was true at the time,” she recalled.

Carpenter, on the other hand, told Ackmann he regretted his testimony.

“He did say that times have changed and it’s a different world,” Ackmann said.

Funk, who was 21 when tested at the Lovelace Clinic, was told by the doctors there that she did better than all of the men.

“They tested every organ in our body,” she said.

Fifty years later, she still works as a flying instructor in Texas and is planning on at last going into space with Virgin Galactic next year.

“I can hardly wait,” she said. “I wanna go. I keep very fit. I’m on the go constantly.”

Funk wanted to be a pilot since she was five years old, when she decided she want to fly and jumped off her father’s barn wearing a superman cape. She aspired to a career with the marines, but back then couldn’t join as anything but a secretary or a nurse.

“That wasn’t me,” she said.

In July, Funk was awarded the Aeronautic and Aerospace Award by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. She said it was the accomplishment she was most proud of.

“I was brought up very happy,” she said. “I march to my own drummer. I’m impulsive and spontaneous, I’m complex. I’m very responsible. I never stop.”

Women pioneers broke though into other areas of NASA as well. Nancy Roman was the chief of observational astronomy at NASA from 1959 to 1970 and helped design and create the Hubble Space Telescope.

“It was almost entirely engineers and it was almost entirely men,” she said. “Engineers were men in those days. But I didn’t have any problems that way.”

Roman, a Ph.D., went by “Dr. Roman” at NASA to make things a little easier.

“I had to use the term ‘doctor,’” she said, “Not because of the men but because I couldn’t get past the secretaries.”

Roman wanted to be an astronomer since the seventh grade, and was determined from then on that she was going to be one. She said NASA was a great place to work because everyone was at the top of their field and very enthusiastic.

Her time there overlapped with the training of the Mercury 13, but she didn’t hear about the group until much later.

Mamta Patel runs the Women@NASA program, started in 2011 as a result of the Obama Administration’s Council on Women and Girls. She started out at Johnson Space Center working as an engineer at mission control and training astronauts.

Patel didn’t learn about the Mercury 13 pilots until a decade ago.

“I have to say that they are very inspiring,” she said. “It was history, we can’t change it. But I think we can learn from it.”

Patel said that the gender gap in the sciences is still a big problem, possibly because girls aren’t as encouraged as boys to pursue it. Roman, who speaks publicly on the topic, said that there’s still strong pressure in schools for women not to succeed in science.

“They’re afraid they’ll turn off the boys,” Roman said. “It is changing slowly, but it takes a long time to make changes like that…Most girls and boys are interested in science in elementary school, and I think we need to find a way to catch that spark.”

Ann Devereaux, a NASA engineer working on the Curiosity, said she was very inspired by Sally Ride because she worked in school to get the credentials she needed to be come an astronaut and her whole life was about building to that goal.

“It was really kind of a strange thing,” she said. “I think it seemed really strange to me. You wouldn’t think that a woman wouldn’t do it at all.”

Devereaux said that a woman in space should have come sooner, and compared the gender discrimination to the notion of women once not being able to own property.

“There’s nothing in a woman’s physiology that would keep them from doing the same,” she said.
Cox has been aware of the Mercury 13 since she met Wally Funk at a lecture at the Museum of Flight in Seattle last year.

“It’s just an awareness of how recent the changes are and how much my generation stands of the shoulders of those before,” Cox said.

But those who joined NASA in a different generation often never heard of the Mercury 13 story.
NASA engineer Karen Rodriguez wasn’t aware of them and was amazed when she heard about it.

“To say that because you’re a woman, you can’t do it, is wrong,” she said. “I’m glad that I live in the era that I do.”

While Sally Ride was the first woman in space, Eileen Collins, a former test pilot, became the first woman to command the space shuttle in 1999. She invited the living members of the Mercury 13 to attend the launch.

“The thing that surprised me was the lack of bitterness among the women,” Ackmann said. “They were really proud of the fact that they opened the door for other women as astronauts to walk through.”