The Weekly Geek: The Mercury 13 had the Right Stuff

Picture, if you will, the original Mercury astronauts. You know — the guys with the “right stuff” strutting down the runway. Now, imagine if the original Mercury astronauts were — gasp — women? Well, it could have actually turned out that way, according to a new post at Wired Science.

Unbeknownst to myself, my Sally Ride-era sisters (yes, we’re spoiled), there was actually a Women in Space program (WISP) in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and a “Mercury 13,” a corps of women who performed as well as. And, in many cases, better than the men who actually went on to make space history.

From the post:

“They were all extraordinary women and outstanding pilots and great candidates for what was proposed,” said Donald Kilgore, a doctor who evaluated both male and female space flight candidates at the Lovelace Clinic, a mid-century center of aeromedical research. “They came out better than the men in many categories. … The results of the women’s tests are described for the first time in an article published in the September Advances in Physiology Education, and show just how capable they [were].”

The Mercury 13 apparently excelled in the sensory deprivation tests, breaking all sorts of records that the male candidates didn’t even come close to meeting. The top four even scored as highly as any of the men on all of the criteria, meaning that, were it not a culture bathed in testosterone and sexism, they surely would’ve been among the first American astronauts to take to the skies and beyond.

“In August 1961, WISP was cancelled. It was not until 1995, when Eileen Collins piloted the STS-63 shuttle around the MIR space station, that the Mercury 13 met again. Collins was the first woman to become a space pilot, but not the first woman who deserved to.”

I must confess, I spent most of my youth wanting to be an astronaut. I thought it was really the only viable option, since Starfleet was hundreds of years from existing and I unfortunately wouldn’t be able to moonlight as Captain Janeway’s “number 1.” In fact, I even collected signed pictures from all the female astronauts I could find addresses for (I still have Shannon Lucid’s autographed mug hanging in my childhood bedroom), since I found them so inspiring.

Alas, having a penchant for writing dorky blogs does not score you points with NASA recruiters. But I have enormous respect for these women — and for all of the female astronauts from around the world who continue to push boundaries — often, quite literally.

The next time I watch Apollo 13, I’m going to pretend there’s a lady astronaut up there, holding things together.

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