REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
Before men walked on the moon, before John Glenn orbited the Earth, a small group of women pilots underwent secret testing for space flight. They became known as the Mercury 13. They passed the same punishing tests as male astronauts but never flew in space. One of those women was Jerri Truhill, who first flew with her father at the age of four.
Ms. JERRI TRUHILL (Mercury 13 Pilot): And I said, I want to fly all the time. 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.
ROBERTS: Jerri Truhill did fly planes, though not space ships. This weekend, she and other Mercury 13 pilots will be honored for paving the way for future women astronauts. She shared her story with us, starting in 1961.
Ms. TRUHILL: I got a call from my friend, Jerrie Cobb, who had been through the testing secretly, and she asked me if I could get away for a top-secret government project. She didn't say what it was and I didn't ask. And so a few - about eight months later, I came home from work and I found a letter in my box that said, we understand that you have volunteered for preliminary astronaut testing. And I was quite shocked because…
(Soundbite of laughter)
ROBERTS: It was news to you.
Ms. TRUHILL: It was news to me. And also, we didn't have anything into space. We were trying to get a Sputnik up, you know. 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.
ROBERTS: So what was the testing like?
Ms. TRUHILL: Well, did you happen to see "The Right Stuff," the movie? It's the same thing. We went through right behind the men. They were told not to cut us any slack at all because we were women. They froze our middle ear to get us into vertigo and see how long it took for us to recover. They put our hands into these freezing cylinders to see how we reacted to shock, and I don't think any of the women even said ouch. We were so determined that we were going to pass this.
ROBERTS: Well, it sounds pretty grueling.
Ms. TRUHILL: It was very grueling. It was very painful. And as a matter of fact, some of the tests, we were told, we came out better than the men did as far as being suited for space flight.
ROBERTS: What did you expect the next stop would be?
Ms. TRUHILL: Dr. Lovelace told us to go home, get our businesses in order and be prepared to go to Pensacola for further testing.
ROBERTS: And Dr. Lovelace is Randy Lovelace, who ran this testing center in Albuquerque.
Ms. TRUHILL: Yes. He ran it for NASA, for the astronauts.
ROBERTS: And so you expected that you would go through further testing in Pensacola and that would lead to astronaut training. What happened instead?
Ms. TRUHILL: Well, the night before we were to leave, we get a telegram from Dr. Lovelace and all it said was the program has been canceled. That was it. There was no explanation. We didn't know what the devil had happened. It was not until I would say five years ago, from the Freedom of Information Act, we found out what happened.
ROBERTS: And what did happen?
Ms. TRUHILL: And what had happened was that, from the beginning, we were walking all over great, giant egos of the men. They didn't want us. They didn't want women around. And then the one that put the nail in the coffin was Lyndon Johnson, because we all now have a copy of the letter for him to authorize our training and he put a stop to this immediately.
ROBERTS: So when you saw the male astronauts - Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom and John Glenn - become these heroes, what was that like to watch for you?
Ms. TRUHILL: Well, we were glad for them. 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 40 or 35 years later that they finally let Eileen Collins pilot a shuttle.
ROBERTS: Did you go to the launch?
Ms. TRUHILL: Oh, we did, and we were so thrilled. And she was so marvelous. And she's had two children and she's happily married, which proved - Eileen proved what we had been saying all along. Men can be husbands and fathers and do their job, and woman can be mothers and wives and do their job.
ROBERTS: Jerri Truhill, thanks so much for talking to us.
Ms. TRUHILL: Bye-bye.
ROBERTS: Jerri Truhill joined us from her home in Richardson, Texas. Our interview continues at npr.org, where you'll also find a history of women in space.
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