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Why female Astronauts
never made it to space in the 1950s

By Sara Faye Lieber - October 14, 2009

In 1957, the USSR got the first satellite into space with Sputnik, and the race was on to get the first anything else up into orbit. As U.S. rockets kept exploding, experts involved were looking for a way to lighten the load of the first human mission. Men were heavier than women, which suddenly opened up the possibility of the first female astronaut. The ill-fated and mostly forgotten initiative to get women into space way back in the early days of the space program is recounted in a recent article in the September issue of Advances in Physiology Education that we found courtesy of Wired. It's a fascinating read, but we'll recount a bit if you don't have the time to go through it.

Eugenicists and misogynists alike have long derided women as the weaker sex based on their delicate size in proportion to men. In 1960, however, Dr. Randolph Lovelace, Chairman of NASA's Special Advisory Committee on Life Sciences, and his team of forward-thinking scientists, convinced higher-ups at NASA to think less like generals and more like choreographers in terms of women's superiority as candidates for space travel, due to their generally smaller stature. Lovelace's reasoning was that women would make better astronauts because they require less oxygen, have a lower risk of heart or respiratory failure, can withstand longer amounts of time in sensory deprivation simulations, are more flexible, were proven to perform better in cramped spaces, and would require less fuel to propel the same distance because of their lighter weight.

Women were both behind the scenes and at the forefront of the short-lived Women in Space Program, which ran from 1959 to 1961. Jackie Cochran, a famous female pilot who was the first woman to break the sound barrier and set a plethora of other flight records in the 1930s, was the main sponsor of Lovelace's privately-funded fight to prove that, "certain qualities of the female space pilot are preferable to her male colleague." This included extensive physical and psychological testing, which women like Jerrie Cobb, another revered female pilot, were put through to prove that they were equal to men, including every test the seven male astronauts of Mercury mission underwent. 13 of the 19 women passed all the tests, in comparison to only 18 of the 32 to men who were tested.


Jerrie Cobb in a simulator

News of the women's success in surviving simulations of space-related stress, such as a gyroscope that spun the female who was seated in the center on three axes at once for 45 minutes, generated media attention despite a lack of official backing from NASA. Jerry Cobb was named by Life as one of the "100 Most Important People of 1959", and featured in an extensive photo essay in the same magazine the following year.


Jerrie Cobb and the Mercury capsule

Unfortunately, the program was not to last. As Wired points out, the women in the program "were ultimately held to a different standard than men," being forced to sit in cold isolation tanks for much longer than John Glenn, according to the famous male astronaut's memoirs. The article highlights the preposterous thoughts of some NASA officials, who thought that "female performance could be impaired by menstruation." According to the Advances in Physiology Education article, these were just some of the reasons behind the program's ultimate cancellation in 1961.

Alas, the Soviets successfully sent Valentina Tereshkova into space in 1963, effectively ending any 'space race' motivation behind getting American female astronauts into space, and keeping them grounded until Dr. Sally Ride joined the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger a full two decades later. --

According to Andrea Mitchell


Andrea Mitchell

Andrea Mitchell, the diminutive, soft-spoken but spunky, veteran NBC Chief Foreign Affairs correspondent recently recounted why she, along with a female colleague, were not assigned to the 3-Mile Island nuclear power plant incident near Harrisburg, PA, in March of 1979, while several male colleagues were sent to cover the event.

Andrea immediately confronted her boss as to why he assigned all the men and none of the women. He said, "There's a very good reason. It's because you're both of childbearing age and there's a big health risk."

To which Andrea replied, “Do you mean to tell us that a man’s balls are not as sensitive as a woman’s ovaries?"

Subsequently, Andrea reported on the 3-Mile Island incident.

Go girl!

"From a woman all men are born.
How then can any man degrade any woman?"

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