The 'Mercury 13'

Were they the first ladies of space?

February 1, 1997

They were depression babies and war babies; daughters of parents who knew hardship and sacrifice. They were precocious 5-year-olds bravely leaping out of haylofts in their first efforts at flight. More than one soloed her first aircraft before the age of 15; two flew jets before the jet age was two decades old. While most 1950s women were modeling their families on Father Knows Best, these daughters, wives, and mothers went off to work as engineers, A&P mechanics, commercial pilots, top- secret aeronautical researchers, aircraft manufacturing executives, and even consultants to the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

They were pioneers, all of them, even before they were offered the opportunity of a lifetime but sworn to secrecy about it. It was an offer that not one could refuse. Thirty-five years later AOPA Pilot talked with nine out of the remaining 10 who passed the tests and proved that they had the mettle. Here is how they saw it.

NASA's unconsulted consultant

By the time the Russians beat us to the first punch in space, Jerrie Cobb had been flying airplanes for nearly 20 years as an instructor, charter pilot, crop duster, pipeline patrol pilot, ferry pilot, and air race champion. Her association with Jackie Cochran and Gen. Don Flickinger brought her into NASA just as the initial testing of the Mercury astronauts began in the late 1950s.

"Dr. Randy Lovelace and Gen. Don Flickinger designed the testing protocol for U-2 spyplane pilots, then for the astronauts," she says. "In 1959 they asked me to go through the testing because they wanted to see if women could pass the tests as they were. I was the guinea pig."

Cobb passed all the tests, both physical and psychological, spending a mind-bending 9 hours and 40 minutes in the sensory deprivation tank (she admitted to napping once or twice during the experiment). There was no question that the 32-year-old, trim, athletic, petite, and blonde-ponytailed Cobb was on par with the men as an astronaut candidate (as far as the data was concerned).

"They then asked me to come up with a list of qualified women pilots and start a group going through testing," says Cobb. "I went to the Ninety-Nines' headquarters at Oklahoma City and found those who met the qualifications. There were 25, all under 35 years old, with commercial instrument pilot certificates and more than 1,000 logged flight hours. Most important, they were all in top physical condition."

Out of those 25 women, 12 would pass the same grueling tests Cobb and the Mercury 7 astronauts had taken and would be invited to the Naval Air Station at Pensacola, where a jet training program had been established as part of the women's astronaut training program, since only two had logged experience in jet aircraft (considered important at the time). Those 12 women were Jane Hart, Wally Funk, Gene Nora Jessen, Irene Leverton, Sarah Ratley, Jerri Truhill, Rhea Woltman, Jean Hixon, Jan Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, B. Steadman, and K. Cagle.

Ready to fly

"When I was 21, I saw Jerrie Cobb in Life Magazine, training to be an astronaut, and said, 'Whoa, I've got to do that,'" says Wally Funk, still standing tall and lean, though silver-topped at the ripe young age of 50-something. "I sent a letter to Dr. Lovelace on November 2 [1960]. The reply came on November 11, which felt great." Funk left her job flying charter and teaching in Hawthorne, California, and reported for testing at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque on February 2, 1961.

"I passed everything there — the exhaustion tests, the barium swallows, the eye tests — and went on to phase two of the testing [psychological and sen-sory deprivation] in Oklahoma City. After that, I did the Martin-Baker ejection seat testing, the centrifuge testing … I took Mother's wickedest Merry-Widow girdle and made my own G-suit for the test — it got me through four laps without graying out, and a trip to 39,000 feet in the altitude chamber."

The mechanic

Myrtle (K.) Cagle's brother taught her to fly when she was 12. Five years later her mother went down to the high school principal and petitioned him to let her into the new aeronautics class, telling him, "She's already a pilot, and for gosh sakes, it's the only class she's interested in." He let Cagle in the class. Before the end of the term, the teacher was drafted and Cagle was left to teach the remainder of the course.

"I even had 1.5 hours in an F-80 that I got as part of a PR stunt — I wrote the aviation column for the paper," says Cagle, who had earned an ATP rating and an A&P mechanic's certificate, as well as a nursing license, in the time since graduating high school. "I found Lovelace. There was an article in the Sunday paper saying the recruiting was on, so I wrote to them. My husband, Walt, was so supportive. He always said that he'd live vicariously through me."

The manager

"I had heard rumors during one of the air races that there was some kind of selection process going on for a woman in space. Then I had a call from Dr. Lovelace, who said, 'Are you interested?' I said, 'Yes!' Within a few days I had the official invitation," says B. Steadman in her soft, businesslike voice. Back then she was a 37-year-old pilot, airport manager, and FBO owner with an understanding husband and two young children. Dropping everything at a moment's notice to go to New Mexico on a "top-secret vacation" wasn't easy, but she did it.

"The letter was clear that they did not want any publicity."

The engineer

"We — my future husband and I — had just set up this company and had two B-25s on lease to Texas Instruments. We were test flying the very first infrared system and terrain-following radar, the system for today's smart bombs," Jerri Truhill says, remembering the day Jerrie Cobb called her. "Cobb said, 'Can you get away for a top-secret project?' That's all. Then she said, 'I'll get back to you.' About a year later, 1961, I got this letter from the Lovelace Foundation saying, 'We understand that you've volunteered for preliminary astronaut training.' I thought, 'Well, if they can get it [the capsule] up there, then I'd like to fly it.' My little boy came in from the yard, and I told him, 'Mom is going for astronaut testing.' He grabbed the letter and ran out to tell his friends that his mom was going to the moon!

"The tests were exactly the same as in The Right Stuff. Pretty painful. We didn't get anything to eat for three days. We did get enemas and barium every night. They gave us five typewritten pages of a 10-day schedule, and every day ended with 'Don't eat anything this evening.' I know the day that I was to take the exhaustion test because I went into Dr. Lovelace's office and told him that I didn't think it was fair, having not eaten for three days. He agreed that it wasn't the best timing, and I did it later. On that test you had to pedal to a metronome, and if you missed a beat, you were out. We were very determined and motivated. We wanted to be astronauts."

Civil Air Patrol cadet

"I got involved in the Civil Air Patrol in high school. It was a way to get discount flying lessons," recalls Sarah Ratley. "I got my CFI at 18 and worked my way through college by teaching flying. With a degree in math and chemistry I went to work for AT&T as a long-line engineer.

"I was on The Ninety-Nines' tour of Europe when I first heard about the [astronaut] program. It was so quick. I was at the beauty shop on a Saturday and they asked me to be at Lovelace on a Sunday. After the tests they [the clinic staff] told me I passed and that they'd be in touch."

The organizer

"I got my multiengine rating in a DC-3. For a while I towed gliders for the Air Force Academy at Black Forest Gliderport [now closed]," says Rhea Woltman. "I did a lot of flying hunters and fishermen. Once or twice when I'd first come out to the airplane, passengers might be nervous, but not after they'd flown with me. After that, most of them requested me as their pilot.

"A letter came in 1961, I think, and I went for testing. After Lovelace Clinic — and for some of us, Oklahoma City testing — we were scheduled for Pensacola. We had our tickets, ready to go."

The corporate pilot

"I had been a corporate pilot, but the corporation had gone almost bankrupt, so I had to take a flight instructing and charter job at Santa Monica [California]," says Irene Leverton, one of the tallest and biggest of the crowd. "I got a phone call one day, and the man asked me if I wanted to take the tests at Lovelace. I'd been flying for 17 years and had a little over 6,000 hours. I jumped at it. How wonderful, I thought — but my boss didn't." Leverton had to delay her testing for work, but finally went to New Mexico. When she got back one week later, it was clear that her boss disapproved. "My multiengine charters began to evaporate," she says. "When Cobb asked me to go to Pensacola for jet training, I told him, and he took all my multiengine privileges away."

The college student

When asked to talk about those days, Gene Nora Jessen sighs and settles back in her chair, "After 35 years we all have different memories, you know. In any case, I was finishing college, working my way through the University of Oklahoma by teaching flying. Wally Funk told me about the program, so I wrote to Dr. Lovelace and said, 'Hey, how about me?'"

Janey Hart and she were the last two to go through the program, during the summer of 1961. "I was 24 years old and had just graduated from college, flying Bellanca Champs. Janey had the multiengine rating, flying helicopters, and was a U.S. senator's wife, too." Jessen reiterates that she was told at the time that it was simply a research program. "I was never told that we were in contention for an astronaut slot. I knew it was the same physical test the astronauts took — but that's all. Who knows if any of us would have passed the other tests?" Dr. Lovelace wrote to her, saying that she'd passed the same tests the Mercury astronauts had taken, and he invited her to Pensacola for more tests and jet training. When Jessen asked her boss for the first two weeks of school off to go to Pensacola, he said no. So she quit her job, ready to go.

What really happened

Though 13 passed the Lovelace tests, the only woman who made it to Pensacola was Jerrie Cobb — but she never got her jet time. The program was terminated sometime that summer. Some said that it was the male Mercury astronauts who drummed the ladies out. Others insist that the entire program was pushed on NASA in the first place and that the agency never had any intention of putting a woman in space. The official NASA line was that the presidential dictate concerning astronauts said that they had to be jet fighter pilots. None of the women met that particular qualification.

Despite the excuses, it was the suddenness and stealthiness with which the program was canceled that really bothered them. Each woman reacted differently to the news.

"I still can't get over how suddenly everything changed. We were notified on a Saturday afternoon not to get on a Sunday morning flight," says Cagle. But being an astronaut wasn't Cagle's ultimate goal. She went back to wrenching and flying, and even was hired for a short stint as an assistant air traffic controller. Aviation is still her life. "I'm a current CFI and a Civil Air Patrol pilot. I keep the key to my Piper Super Cruiser around my neck, just in case I get a sudden urge to go up."

"I got the telegram two days before I was to go to Pensacola," says Jessen. " I felt pure panic — I had no job!" She got a job at Oklahoma State, where Wally Funk had been, then moved on to Beech Aircraft and became one of the "Three Musketeers," marketing the new aircraft in high heels and a skirt. "I was thrilled to have the job. I eventually was checked out in every airplane Beech built." Jessen and her husband eventually moved north, starting Boise Air Service, a Beech dealership in Boise, where she still presides today.

"I felt terrible," says Woltman, "but I had a job to go back to and had to go on. They never really gave us an explanation. Instead they told us not to talk about it." Woltman didn't talk about the tests for nearly 30 years, during which she got married and stopped flying. Her work as a parliamentarian kept her busy enough. "I didn't think about it much until people began asking questions recently," she says.

Ratley was disappointed, too, but like the others, her life went on. She continues to fly for the Civil Air Patrol, although she's finished with the life of a flight instructor.

Leverton didn't even consider not flying. She excelled at pylon racing in the 1960s, then did some ag flying, some charter, some fire spotting for the U.S. Forest Service, and some medivac flying in the 1980s. She currently heads a consulting business, Aviation Resource Management. At 70 years old she has no plans for retirement.

"The guys didn't want us at NASA, that's clear," says Truhill. "The remarks they made about us were so degrading and ungentlemenlike. One NASA official said he'd rather send up monkeys than a bunch of women." Ironically enough, the chimp who preceded the Mercury astronauts into space was a female. Truhill went back to Oklahoma City and her top-secret research position, testing technology that eventually proved itself in the 1990 Persian Gulf War.

"So many of the girls lost jobs and husbands and had a bad taste in their mouths after all this," says Funk. "I just kept going, flying, teaching, learning. I'm still going into outer space as soon as they start selling tickets on the shuttle." Since her days in astronaut testing, Funk has gone on to become one of the first female NTSB investigators and a dynamic aviation safety counselor, lecturing all over the United States.

"The reason for cancellation was ridiculous. We had more flying time than the Mercury guys and had passed the tests. They told us they were worried that if any of the women were hurt or killed in training or any other part, it would end the space program. Believe me, if there had been a legitimate reason, we would have taken it in stride," says Steadman, the chip on her shoulder toward NASA still fresh. What upset Steadman the most was that after some of the women, led by Jerrie Cobb, prodded Congress into holding hearings on the issue, even legendary aviatrix Jackie Cochran came out on record against it, stating that the timing was wrong.

After that congressional hearing in 1962 Cobb resigned her position as consultant with NASA ("They never consulted me anyway," she claims) and went back to work as an executive at Aero Commander. In 1965 she left that post and began flying medical relief as a missionary pilot in South America. Eventually she created her own foundation to support the missionary work. She was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1981 and continues to split her time between South America and a home base in South Florida.

A Life magazine follow-up dated June 28, 1963, depicts the 13 women as "Still Warming Up The Bench," staying in shape, and hoping that something would come of their wishes and hard work. Valentina Tereshkova, a sport parachutist and factory worker, orbited the Earth 48 times for the Russians in that same year.

Scott Carpenter, one of the Mercury 7 and the second American to orbit the Earth, says today that "NASA never had any intention of putting those women in space. The whole idea was foisted upon it, and it was happy to have the research data, but those women were before their time."

The women were pleased to see Sally Ride in orbit, but it wasn't until 30-some years later, when Lt. Col. Eileen Collins piloted shuttle mission STS-63 to within 35 feet of the Russian Mir space station, that they began to feel as if the tide at NASA had finally turned (See " Pilots: Eileen Collins," July 1996 Pilot). "Every time a woman accomplishes something like that I feel so damn good I have to sit down and have some peach schnapps to celebrate and I think, 'maybe it was worth it,'" says Leverton.

In a surprising gesture of reconciliation (possibly spurred on by Collins herself), 10 of the original Mercury women were VIPs at the launch. As the shuttle roared out of the atmosphere, burning a trough through the clear midnight sky, Funk and the others screamed, "Go, go, go Eileen! We're with you, and God bless!"