Since the Bay Area is scheduled to see the Space Shuttle Endeavour tomorrow, how about a little history of American space travel.
Russia versus the United States and Russia is winning. The “Space Race” dominates the 1950s and 60s in which the two super powers compete for the final frontier. Russia began with the launching of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. The Russians continued their success:
- 1st to orbit a payload (Sputnik, October 4, 1957)
- 1st Human in Space (Yuri Gagarin, April 12, 1961)
- 1st Human to Orbit Earth (Gagarin)
- 1st Spacewalker (Alexei Leonov, March 18, 1965)
This was not all they accomplished though. On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. Interestingly, the United States would not put an American woman in space until 1983 (twenty years after the Soviets) with Dr. Sally Ride. It would be another 12 years, on February 3, 1995 that a female pilot, Colonel Eileen Collins would go to space.
Unfortunately, the women who ventured to fly to space fought the same prejudices that their predecessors did. Critics continued argued that women did not have the physical or mental capacity to fly. However, women continued to push the limits, setting new paths for future generations to follow.
In 1960, Jerrie Cobb, was the first woman to undergo the rigorous tests to determine women’s eligibility to become astronauts under the direction of Dr. W. Randolph Lovelace (Mercury 13: the Untold Story of Thirteen American Women). Cobb, a test pilot for North American Aviation and held four altitude records, passed the series of tests and due to her success, was consulted about other women to participate in the program of women astronauts (http://www.mercury13.com/). The final list consisted of 25 women of which 13 would successfully pass the aerospace tests.
The women included:
- Jerry Cobb
- Bernice Steadman
- Janey Hart
- Jerri Truhill
- Rhea Woltman
- Sarah Ratley
- Jan & Marion Dietrich
- Myrtle Cagle
- Irene Leverton
- Gene Nora Jessen
- Jean Hixson
- Wally Funk
The tests were the same physical and psychological tests that were used for the Mercury 7, the group of men trained to go to space: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton.
The 13 women who passed went on for additional training; however, it never came. In fact, none of these women who had proven that they could withstand the strains of space travel, never went. It would be 34 years before any of them would witness America’s first female pilot in a spacecraft.
Now you may be asking, how does this relate to the Bay Area. The training took place in New Mexico and NASA is no where close to San Francisco and the Bay Area. However, two women from the original 13 are from San Francisco. Twin sisters, Marion and Janet Dietrich were born in San Francisco in 1926. They both entered the inaugural 1947 Chico-San Mateo Air Race, in which they took first place defeating many experience male pilots. They went on to receive the second-place trophy in the 1951 “Powder Puff Derby,” an All-Women’s Transcontinental Air Race (SFGate). Janet Dietrich became the first female to earn an Airline Transport Pilot License, which is the highest Federal Aviation Administration license and went on to a career of commerical flying (something that was unheard of a decade prior). Both sisters were selected to undergo the space tests administered by Dr. Lovelace and screened for potential NASA astronauts
For more on the Mercury 13, check out the following clip from CBS news. The interview goes in to more detail about the trials and tribulations that these women underwent, as well as their honorary doctoral degrees received from the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh (you are able to skip the commercial that precedes the clip): Meet the Mercury 13