As of this very moment, the world has sent 535 astronauts into space, 58 of which were women. This is their story. The first real female astronaut was Valentina Tereshkova, a humble farm girl from a small Russian village, who had worked at an assembly line before she became a cosmonaut. It was the first time a civilian had reached for the stars and actually touched them. “Anyone who has spent any time in space will love it for the rest of their lives,” she said after her flight, “I achieved my childhood dream of the sky.”
Not only was Tereshkova the first woman to break through Earth’s atmosphere, she was the first to do it solo. Imagine being locked into a small primitive rocket that was, frankly, ill equipped to bring you back home, and catapulted into the vast emptiness of space all alone. It was an extraordinary three-day mission that would earn her an impossible number of honors, including the Greatest Woman Achiever of the Century award.
America would not send a woman into space until 1983, a full twenty years after the Soviet Union sent Tereshkova. There was a palpable tension in the air as the United States competed with the Soviets for technological supremacy. It was something of a celestial cock-fight. They figured if the Russian rocket technology was advanced enough to send a person to space, then it was definitely advanced enough to send a nuclear missile anywhere on earth.
The USSR was definitely in the technological lead up until the early 60s. They were the first to launch a satellite, and the first to launch a human of any gender into space.
Frustratingly, many of America’s finest astro-physicists wrote off Valentina Tereshkova’s voyage as a publicity stunt, and found the idea of a female astronaut unpalatable. One top NASA official was heard saying they would “just as soon orbit a bunch of monkeys than a bunch of women.”
When the US finally resolved to send a person to the moon, they were starting from nothing. Up to that point, few had studied the effects of space travel on a human body. No one could be completely sure what would happen once you broke free of earth’s atmosphere. Space was an unknown hostile environment where only the strongest and most psychologically resilient individuals could venture.
The very first steps taken by NASA, then a newly appointed government agency, was something called Project Mercury, an exhaustive series of experiments devised to test the very limits of human endurance. They were arduous, painful, and in some cases even mortifying procedures.
Among the more intense tests was the injection of freezing cold water into the ear, which numbed the eardrum and induced violent fits of vertigo. And then there was the sensory deprivation chamber, designed to study the effects of claustrophobia and isolation on the psyche. After only a short time in the chamber the Mercury candidates started to behave strangely—some seemed drunk, others had vivid hallucinations, fell into hysterics, and spoke to imaginary voices.
Despite the controversy, NASA decided to accept both men and women for its Mercury program. “Women weigh less, they use less oxygen, eat less food and take up less space than men,” explains Tanya Lee Stone, author of Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream, “if women would make equally good candidates for astronauts as men, this would save NASA millions of dollars.”
Nineteen women were tested, thirteen of which passed the backbreaking experiments and became known as the Mercury 13. These women put all their hopes and dreams into the mission, leaving behind their families and quitting their day jobs for a chance to fly to the stars. They received scores that were as high or higher than the male candidates, and yet, despite their physical and mental qualifications, the Mercury 13 were held back on the pretense of a technicality.
President Eisenhower had decided that only jet test pilots would be considered for the astronaut corp, a requirement that immediately excluded women since they were not legally permitted to join the military.
“What we wanted,” explained Mercury flight director Chris Kraft to the L.A. Times, “were people who were used to putting their lives on the line daily and making in-flight decisions that would not be tainted by fear. Had we lost a woman back then because we decided to fly a woman rather than a man, we would have been castrated.”
And since test pilots were among the most extreme examples of fearlessness, it made sense that this qualification was put in place, except that there was no way for women to actually get the qualification. It was a frustrating catch 22 for the women who came so close to their dream of becoming astronauts.
“I would give my life to fly in space, I really would,” Jerrie Cobb, an original member of the Mercury 13 now 83 years old, told writer Marcia Dunn. “It’s hard for me to talk about it,” she says getting emotional, “but I would. I would then, and I will now.” [L.A. Times]
Jerrie Cobb was a particularly puzzling case in this story. She was everything an astronaut ought to be: an experienced pilot, physically strong, brave and resilient. She even broke the record for time spent in the sensory deprivation chamber. By the time the Mercury space program testing started, Cobb had clocked over 7,000 hours of flying time, held 3 world aviation records, had flown 64 types of aircrafts and had destroyed the rigorous astronaut experiments, scoring higher than many of her male counterparts. And yet, she would never get the chance to fly to space because she had never test flown a jet.
“Most of us had more flying time than those jockeys did,” Myrtle Cagle, another member of the original Mercury 13 and a former airplane mechanic, told the New York Times in 1995.
In 1979 author Tom Wolfe coined the term “having the right stuff” in his book The Right Stuff about the test jet qualified male candidates of the Mercury mission. The book was published and hit best-seller status in 1979, the same year Sigourney Weaver kicked Alien ass across television screens all over the world.
In an epic twist of irony, pop culture expressed a readiness for female astronauts that the political arena could not yet swallow. Women were seen going to space everywhere. Except in reality.
By the early twentieth century the idea of women in space was no longer a groundbreaking new concept, and it was not uncommon to see women piloting a spaceship in the media. There was a profusion of films, television programs, cartoons, comic books and science fiction novels with female astronauts who served as more than just eye candy. And they were not just exploring space, but also solving seemingly unsolvable problems and saving the world.
It was only when NASA created a new position within the space shuttle missions that women were finally given their chance on the rocket. Though they still couldn’t fly the ship, they could now direct it as Mission Specialists. America’s first woman in space, Sally Ride, held this very title.
Sally Ride did not set out to be a feminist icon, all she wanted was to fly to space. “For whatever reason, I didn’t succumb to the stereotype that science wasn’t for girls,” she explained, “I never went into physics or the astronaut corps to become a role model. But after my first flight, it became clear to me that I was one. And I began to understand the importance of that to people. Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday. You can’t be what you can’t see.”
We’re not dealing with your garden-variety bravery here. These women were courageous in the legend-making, risking your life, swords at the ready, first on the front line sense. It’s the stuff Homeric epics were made of.
In 2013 prima astronautess Valentina Tereshkova expressed her wish to go on a one-way mission to Mars should the opportunity arise. It takes a very special kind of courage to seek unfathomable adventures that are more likely than not to result in death. “All adventures, especially into new territory, are scary,” wrote Sally Ride, “I would like to be remembered as someone who was not afraid to do what she wanted to do, and as someone who took risks along the way in order to achieve her goals.” The women that became pioneering space explorers were made of stuff resilient to fear. They were, indeed, made of the right stuff.