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Beep beep. Beep beep. That was the sound that sent chills through Americans on October 4, 1957. It came from space, emitted by a 184-pound (83.6-kilogram) capsule that had been launched into Earth orbit by the Soviet Union. The capsule was Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, and the event is commonly held to be the start of the Space Race. It created a sense of urgency that would see the United States put a man on the moon in 1969, when Apollo 11’s Eagle lunar module touched down on the Sea of Tranquility.

But the path to the moon began a decade earlier, with the Mercury program.

Less than four years after Sputnik, the Soviets placed a man in space. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completed an orbit of the Earth aboard Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961. Three weeks later, the Americans did the same. On May 5, Alan Shepard rode the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule—perched atop a Redstone rocket—186 kilometers (116 miles) into space. The flight lasted 15 minutes but, unlike Gagarin’s, did not complete an orbit.

The Mercury Seven

Shepard was part of the first astronaut class, introduced by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on April 9, 1959. The group, which came to be known as the Mercury Seven, also included:

  • Scott Carpenter
  • Gordon Cooper
  • John Glenn
  • Virgil Grissom
  • Walter Schirra, Jr.
  • Donald Kent Slayton

But while these men gained notoriety as the first Americans to go into space (all but Slayton made flights aboard Mercury capsules between 1961 and 1963), there is another group that played a key role in the development of the United States’ crewed spaceflight capabilities. And among them were exactly zero men.

But that is only part of the story.


Many know that Sally Ride was the first American woman to fly in space. As a crew member on mission STS-7, aboard the
Space Shuttle Challenger, Ride took the final steps in a journey that an incredible group of inspiring women started in 1960.

When NASA was formed in 1958 and the United States started its spaceflight program, a former flight surgeon named William Lovelace was asked to help draw up the profile of the ideal astronaut. As Chairman of NASA’s Life Sciences Committee, it was his battery of tests, developed together with US Air Force Brigadier General Donald Flickinger, that whittled down the pool of candidates from 32 to seven. But while the criteria set by the agency meant that only men were being considered, Lovelace believed that women were just as well suited as men for spaceflight. So, in 1960, he invited Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb, a renowned 29-year-old pilot, to take part in the same tests.

Cobb, who learned to fly at age 12, became a professional pilot at 18 and set world records for speed, distance, and absolute altitude in her twenties. She was the first member of the group she would dub the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs). The name wouldn’t stick, and the group would essentially go nameless until years later, when writers, filmmakers, and others began referred to them as the Mercury 13.

All these women were skilled pilots with commercial ratings, but lacked one required qualification: none were graduates of a military test pilot school. It was a credential they could not possibly have since women were barred from such training at the time. The Army did not allow women to train as test pilots until 1974, the Navy 1983, and the Air Force 1988.

Nevertheless, Lovelace moved forward with his Woman in Space Program (WISP), which was privately funded and not officially part of NASA. With Cobb’s help, Lovelace selected 19 more women for WISP from a pool of more than 700 candidates. They would become a sort of control group for the Mercury Seven, allowing Lovelace to determine where men and women might react differently to space.

Jerrie Cobb

The battery of exams Lovelace put together were intense and were designed not only to gauge how the subjects would react to space travel but also to drum out those not strong enough to endure the pressure. He called them “one of the toughest medical examinations in history,” and at the press conference introducing the Mercury Astronaut Team on April 9, 1959, said: “I just hope they never give me a physical examination. It’s been a rough, long period they have been through.”

The men went through the process together, often competing with one another, but the women were tested alone or in pairs.

Of the women, Cobb was the first and was followed by those she helped select. While the men underwent testing at Wright Air Development Center in Dayton, OH, Lovelace administered tests on the women at the Lovelace Foundation in Albuquerque, NM.

When all was said and done, 13 passed the same regimen and the Mercury Seven. Joining Cobb were:

  • Wally Funk
  • Irene Leverton
  • Myrtle “K” Cagle
  • Jane B. Hart
  • Gene Nora Stumbough [Jessen]
  • Jerri Sloan [Truhill]
  • Rhea Hurrle [Woltman]
  • Sarah Gorelick [Ratley]
  • Bernice “B” Trimble Steadman
  • Jan Dietrich
  • Marion Dietrich
  • Jean Hixson

In an article entitled “Duckings, Probings, Checks That Proved Fliers’ Fitness” in the April 20, 1959, issue of LIFE magazine, he described the procedures.

One involved total immersion in a tank of warm water while seated in a chair attached to the beam of sensitive scale suspended from the ceiling. The purpose was to measure the total amount of body fat by weighing the body’s specific gravity.

To study how a person might react to the gravity-free state of Earth orbit, the subject’s head was positioned so that the lateral ear canal was vertical instead of horizontal, and water of a carefully regulated temperature was injected into the ear so that it flowed against the ear drum for 30 seconds. This invariably resulted in nystagmus—a rapid, involuntary motion of the eyeballs that is a symptom of dizziness.

And to test fatigue under inadequate blood supply, circulation in the arm was cut off and the nerves repeatedly shocked. This caused the subject’s fist to clench involuntarily, resulting in strong pain.

There were more than 30 lab tests and 13 psycho­logical tests.

When the results were in, Lovelace was proven right. Gender was not a differentiating factor. Cobb, who passed away on March 18
of this year, scored in the top two percent of all astronaut candidates at the time—including the Mercury Seven. Imagine the path these women might have gone down if entering the program today.

It took until 1978 for NASA to accept the first woman into the astronaut program, but the hard work and dedication of the Mercury 13 paved the way for women such as Ride and Eileen Collins, who, in February 1995, became the first of three women to pilot the space shuttle when she guided Discovery to the Mir space station, the first mission of the US–Russian Shuttle-Mir Program. She also flew Atlantis to Mir in May 1997.

The other two women to pilot the space shuttle are Susan Still (Columbia in April and July 1997) and Pamela Ann Melroy (Discovery in October 2000 and Atlantis in October 2002). In all, there were 32 space shuttle missions with two or more women on the crew.

The success of these women has inspired generations of girls to pursue careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

This is reflected in the NASA STEM Engagement program, which creates ways for students to contribute to exploration and discovery. The program aims to:

  • Increase K–12 involvement in NASA projects
  • Enhance higher education
  • Support underrepresented communities
  • Strengthen online education
  • Boost NASA’s contribution to informal education

With NASA returning to the moon by 2024 and then moving on to Mars, and with private space companies such as Blue Origin LLC and Space Exploration Technologies Corp.—better known as SpaceX—preparing to carry us into a future beyond Earth, STEM education is a must. Producing a generation that is prepared to code, calculate, design, and discover is critical to future innovation and our expansion into space, and—like the Mercury and Apollo missions—it won’t be possible without the contributions of women.


In the early days of the Mercury program, there had been rumors that the Soviets might send a woman into space aboard Vostok 1,
which would have made the first human to leave Earth female. Ultimately, that didn’t happen until 1963,
when Valentina Tereshkova
flew aboard Vostok 6 on June 16
and became the first woman in space. She completed 48 orbits in 71 hours and returned to Earth
on June 19.

Since then, more than 60 women from 12 countries have flown into space and two are current residents of the International Space Station (ISS).



Valentina Tereshkova (Soviet Union)
First and youngest woman in space
Only woman to make a solo spaceflight
(Vostok 6, 1963)


Svetlana Savitskaya (Soviet Union)
First woman to fly on a space station
(Salyut T-5, 1982)
First woman to perform a spacewalk
(Salyut T-12, 1984)


Sally Ride (United States)
First US woman in space
(STS-7, 1983; STS-41-G, 1984)


Kathryn D. Sullivan (United States)
First US woman to perform a space walk
(STS-41-G, 1984; STS-31, 1990; STS-45, 1992)


Anna Lee Fisher (United States)
First mother in space
(STS-51-A, 1984)


Shannon Lucid (United States)
First US woman to fly on a space station
(STS-51-G, 1985; STS-34, 1989; STS-43, 1991;
STS-58, 1993; STS-76/79, 1996)


Helen Sharman (United Kingdom)
First UK citizen in space
(Soyuz TM-12/TM-11, 1991)


Roberta Bondar (Canada)
First Canadian woman in space
(STS-42, 1992)


Ellen Ochoa (United States)
First Hispanic woman in space
(STS-56, 1993; STS-66, 1994; STS-96, 1999;
STS-110, 2002)


Chiaki Mukai (Japan)
First Japanese woman in space
(STS-65, 1994; STS-95, 1998)


Eileen Collins (United States)
First female shuttle pilot and commander
(STS-63, 1995; STS-84, 1997; STS-93, 1999;
STS-114, 2005)


Peggy Whitson (United States)
First female commander of the ISS
(STS-111/113, 2002; Soyuz TMA-11, 2007;
Soyuz MS-03, 2016)

Christopher Bryan Jones is Editor-in-Chief of The ACCJ Journal. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he has lived in Japan since 1997.