Women's Space Dreams Cut Short, Remembered

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Jerri Truhill i

Jerri Truhill was among the group of women known as the Mercury 13, who underwent secret testing to become among the nation's first astronauts. Courtesy mercury13.com hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy mercury13.com
Jerri Truhill

Jerri Truhill was among the group of women known as the Mercury 13, who underwent secret testing to become among the nation's first astronauts.

Courtesy mercury13.com

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Jerrie Cobb tests the Gimbal Rig. i

Jerrie Cobb, one of the "Mercury 13," tests the Gimbal Rig, a device used to train astronauts to control the spin of a tumbling spacecraft, in 1960. NASA hide caption

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Jerrie Cobb tests the Gimbal Rig.

Jerrie Cobb, one of the "Mercury 13," tests the Gimbal Rig, a device used to train astronauts to control the spin of a tumbling spacecraft, in 1960.

NASA

Women in Space

Hundreds of humans have flown in space. Only a few dozen women have made the journey.

Jerri Truhill is honored at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. i

Jerri Truhill and other members of the "Mercury 13" receive honorary degrees at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh on May 12, 2007. University of Wisconsin Oshkosh hide caption

itoggle caption University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Jerri Truhill is honored at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh.

Jerri Truhill and other members of the "Mercury 13" receive honorary degrees at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh on May 12, 2007.

University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
'Mercury 13' members gather at the Kennedy Space Center. i

Seven of the "Mercury 13" gathered at the Kennedy Space Center in 1995. Gene Nora Jessen (from left), Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman came to watch Eileen Collins become the first woman to pilot a space shuttle. NASA hide caption

itoggle caption NASA
'Mercury 13' members gather at the Kennedy Space Center.

Seven of the "Mercury 13" gathered at the Kennedy Space Center in 1995. Gene Nora Jessen (from left), Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman came to watch Eileen Collins become the first woman to pilot a space shuttle.

NASA

In the early 1960s, before men walked on the moon and before John Glenn orbited the Earth, a small group of female pilots underwent secret testing for spaceflight.

They became known as the Mercury 13. They passed the same punishing tests as men but never flew in space. One of those women was Jerri Truhill, who first flew with her father at the age of 4.

"I said, 'I want to fly all the time,'" Truhill recalls. "And he said, 'Well, if you make real good grades and you grow up and you become a registered nurse, then you can be an air hostess.' And I said, 'Oh, no. That wasn't what I had in mind at all. I am going to fly planes.'"

Truhill did fly planes, though not spacecraft.

This weekend, she and other Mercury 13 pilots will be honored at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh for paving the way for future female astronauts.

'A Top-Secret Project'

In 1961, Truhill says, she got a call from her friend Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb, who had been through secret testing.

"She asked me if I could get away for a top-secret government project," Truhill says. "She didn't say what it was and I didn't ask."

Several months later, Truhill came home from work to find a letter.

"We understand that you have volunteered for preliminary astronaut testing," it said.

Truhill was shocked. America lagged the Soviet Union in space, "and so I thought, 'Well, if they're looking for astronauts, they must think they've got something they can put up there and if they do, I want to fly it.' So, I said, 'Sure.'"

Determined to Pass

Truhill says the testing was just like in the movie, The Right Stuff, the story of the original Mercury astronauts.

"It's the same thing," she says. "We went through right behind the men. They were told not to cut us any slack at all because we were women."

There were tests to see how long it took the women to recover from vertigo. And they were told to put their hands into freezing cylinders to see how they reacted to shock.

"I don't think any of the women even said, 'Ouch.' We were so determined that we were going to pass this," Truhill says.

"It was very grueling. It was very painful. As a matter fact, some of the tests, we were told, we came out better than the men did as far as being suited for spaceflight."

Dr. William Randolph "Randy" Lovelace, who ran an astronaut testing center for NASA in Albuquerque, N.M., told the women to go home, "get our businesses in order and be prepared to go to Pensacola (Fla.) for further testing."

But it was not to be.

A Sudden Halt

"The night before we were to leave, we get a telegram from Dr. Lovelace. All it said was, 'The program has been canceled,'" Truhill recalls. "That was it. There was no explanation. We didn't know what the devil had happened."

Truhill says that records obtained a few years ago through the Freedom of Information Act revealed the reason for the program's abrupt halt.

"From the beginning, we were walking all over great, giant egos of the men," Truhill says. "They didn't want us, they didn't want women around. And then the one that put the nail in the coffin was [Vice President] Lyndon Johnson," who ordered the training to stop.

Truhill says she and her fellow Mercury 13 pilots weren't upset to see men like Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom and John Glenn become heroes.

"We were glad for them," Truhill says. "We were glad to see the United States do something. We really were. But we still could have put the first woman in space. It was not until ... 35 years later that they finally let Eileen Collins pilot a shuttle."

Truhill and some of her fellow Mercury 13 women attended Collins' space shuttle launch in 1995.

"We were so thrilled and she was so marvelous," Truhill says. "She's had two children and she's happily married. Eileen proved what we had been saying all along: Men can be husbands and fathers and do their job, and women can be mothers and wives and do their job."

Timeline: Women in Space

Jerrie Cobb

Jerrie Cobb was an accomplished pilot when she was chosen as one of the "Mercury 13," a group of women that NASA selected for astronaut training in the early 1960s. NASA canceled the training days before it was to begin. Bettmann/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Bettmann/Corbis
On June 16, 1963, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space.

On June 16, 1963, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. NASA hide caption

itoggle caption NASA
Svetlana Savitskaya

Nineteen years after Valentina Tereshkova's historic flight, Russian cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya became the second woman in space in August 1982. In July 1984, Savitskaya became the first woman to perform a spacewalk. Bettmann/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Bettmann/Corbis
Sally K. Ride

In June 1983, Sally K. Ride became America's first female astronaut, and the third woman in space. NASA hide caption

itoggle caption NASA
Astronauts Kathryn D. Sullivan and Sally Ride

Astronaut Kathryn Sullivan (left) was the first American woman to perform a spacewalk. She's shown with Sally Ride on an October 1984 mission that was the first to include two women as crew members. NASA hide caption

itoggle caption NASA
Peggy Whitson

As the first resident scientist aboard the International Space Station, biochemist Peggy Whitson spent six months in space in 2002. NASA hide caption

itoggle caption NASA
Eileen Collins, pictured during training in 1990

Eileen Collins became the first female pilot of a shuttle mission in 1995, and the first female shuttle commander in 1999. She's shown here during astronaut training in 1990. NASA hide caption

itoggle caption NASA

Hundreds of humans have flown in space. Only 40 women have made the journey — including Eileen M. Collins, who commands the Space Shuttle Discovery on NASA's historic return to flight. NPR explores the long road that women like her have trod into space:

1960-1962: Ladies in Waiting

Twenty-five women report to the Lovelace Clinic, the aviation medicine hub that tested the Mercury 7, America's first astronauts. There they undergo the same stringent tests endured by the men. All of the women are professional pilots. Several rank among the most distinguished pilots of their time, and many of them outperform the Mercury 7.

Lovelace dubs the 13 who pass the tests the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs), and they are scheduled for training to become the "Mercury 13." Just days before reporting to the Naval Aviation Center in Pensacola, Fla., the women receive telegrams canceling their training.

Two of the women — Jerrie Cobb and Janey Hart — campaign in Washington, D.C., to resume the training program. In July 1962, they testify before a special subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, but the panel decides that training female astronauts would hurt the space program. The FLATs never fly in space.

June 16, 1963: First Woman in Space

Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space. She spends more time in space than all of the astronauts of NASA's Mercury program combined. During nearly 71 hours aboard the Vostok 6, she circles the Earth 48 times. Nineteen years pass between this historic flight and the next spaceflight by a woman.

Aug. 19, 1982: Return to Space

Russian cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya becomes the second woman in space, serving on a Soyuz mission to dock with the Salyut 7 space station. However, she is perhaps best known for her second Soyuz mission, in 1984, in which she became the first woman to perform a spacewalk. She retired from her work as a cosmonaut in 1993, having spent a total of 19.71 days in space.

June 18, 1983: First American Woman in Space

Astrophysicist Sally K. Ride becomes America's first woman astronaut, serving as a mission specialist on the shuttle's seventh mission. Ride flew on two shuttle missions and was in training for a third when the Challenger exploded in 1986, temporarily halting the shuttle program. She served on the presidential commission that investigated the accident, as well as on the panel that probed the 2003 Columbia disaster. Ride left NASA in 1987. She is active in mentoring women in science and technology.

July 17, 1984: Walking the Walk

Svetlana Savitskaya becomes the first woman to walk in space. On her final spaceflight, she logs almost four spacewalking hours outside the Salyut 7 space station.

Oct. 5, 1984: America's Turn

Kathryn D. Sullivan becomes the first American woman to perform a spacewalk. Sally Ride also flew on this mission, making it the first American spaceflight to include two women as crew members.

Sept. 12, 1992: First Black Woman in Space

Mae C. Jemison, an engineer and medical doctor, becomes the first black woman in space. On her only spaceflight, she serves as co-investigator on a bone-cell research experiment, part of a cooperative mission between the United States and Japan.

Feb. 3-11, 1995: Taking the Controls

Eileen M. Collins becomes the first woman to pilot an American space shuttle. Four years later, on July 22, 1999, she becomes the first woman commander of a U.S. shuttle mission.

June 5 - Dec. 7, 2002: Making Space Her Home

Biochemist Peggy Whitson becomes the first resident scientist of the International Space Station. During the six-month mission — her first — she installs the station's Mobile Base System, a type of rail car for the station's robotic arm, performs a 4.5-hour spacewalk and conducts 21 experiments in human life science and microgravity science.

July 26, 2005: Return to Flight

Eileen M. Collins, the first woman to pilot and to command a NASA space shuttle, commands Discovery for NASA's first shuttle mission since the Columbia accident in 2003.

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