She's Got It

"It", in this case, referring to "The Right Stuff". Brandon Keim at Wired Science had a great post yesterday about attempts by NASA contractors to get women into the space program during the late 1950s. The (ultimately unsuccessful) charge was led by Randy Lovelace--the doctor responsible for putting together health tests for astronaut hopefuls during the original Mercury 7 selection process--and Donald Flickinger--an Air Force general. Flickinger founded the Women in Space Earliest program in 1959, Keim writes...

But the Air Force canned it before testing even started, prompting Lovelace to start the Woman in Space Program. Nineteen women enrolled in WISP, undergoing the same grueling tests administered to the male Mercury astronauts. Thirteen of them -- later dubbed the Mercury 13 -- passed "with no medical reservations," a higher graduation rate than the first male class. The top four women scored as highly as any of the men

It's pretty fascinating stuff, I just wish Keim had included more biographical information on the women involved. Unlike the male astronaut candidates, they couldn't have come from the Air Force (and 1959 seems a little late for women who'd been with the WAC in World War II to be in prime physical condition), and yet, the women were trained, experienced pilots. There's some great stories fluttering in the shadows around this piece. I, for one, would love to know more.*

*Read: I would kill to interview one of these women. If you, your mom, or your grandma were involved, email me. Seriously.


  1. “(and 1959 seems a little late for women who’d been with the WAC in World War II to be in prime physical condition)”

    Don’t be so sure. Figuring a woman could have been 25 in 1945 at the end of WW2, she’d have been 39 in 1959. Glenn was born in 1921, and he flew in 1962. He was the oldest of the Mercury 7, but all the others were in their mid- to late-30s before they flew.

  2. There are, especially by now, several very good organizations devoted to the promotion and historical study of women in the field of aviation. I was exposed to a couple of them during my time in ground school, though unfortunately I can’t recall the specific organizations I came into contact with.

    My first guess might be that there would be someone at one of these organizations who’d be very happy to help track down members of this program if you could get ahold of them. There’s bound to be someone available with research know-how and reference resources among their ranks.

  3. Er, well if you want to send women into orbit, Randy Lovelace and Donald Flickinger sound like just the right men. Ba-dum-bum-tsh! :D

    Parents really should be more careful naming their kids. Hmm.

  4. I have written a screenplay about the Mercury 13; it served as the thesis for my M.A. and is being shopped around. In my research with the NASA archives administrators and Laura Woodmansea among others, I found a fair amount of disagreement regarding what really happened. Some sources said that the women were tested to failure. Others said their testing was exactly the same as the male test pilots’. The women have consistently refused to option their life stories. We eventually optioned a book about the project.

  5. If you’re interested in finding a live one, you might reach out to Gene Nora Jessen, whose email is out there somewhere, surely. (Handy tip: Mom goes by Gene Nora, and it’s pronounced as one word with the accent in the middle – jaNOra.)

    As I posted in the comments section at Wired, she’d probably be delighted to answer a few questions – only you’d be best off reading the books first (“Right Stuff, Wrong Sex” by Weitekamp, “Mercury 13″ by Ackmann/Sherr, “Promised the Moon” by Nolen, and “Amelia Earhart’s Daughters” by Haynsworth/Toomey – all fun reading). The myth risks overcoming the facts in this story, and she’s liable to jump all over you (nicely but firmly) if you lead with “So what was it like being a secret astronaut?” Better to lead with “Hey, you flew the lower 48 in the mid-sixties selling Musketeer aircraft in a skirt and high heels and then wrote a book about it! Woot!” Actually leave out the “woot”.

    Incidentally documentary producer James Cross coined the term “Mercury 13″. He was one of the original producers of “Golden Age of Television” (out next month from Criterion) and he lives in the Valley. For less than the cost of a house I’m sure he’d tell you all about how the Merc 13 movie deal blew to smithereens circa 1999.

    Taylor Jessen

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