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Jerrie Cobb with a Mercury capsule

Mercury 13 refers to thirteen American women who, as part of a privately-funded program, underwent some of the same physiological screening tests as the astronauts selected by NASA on April 9, 1959 for Project Mercury. The term was coined in 1995 by Hollywood producer James Cross as a comparison to the Mercury Seven name given to the selected male astronauts; however, the Mercury 13 were not part of NASA's astronaut program, never flew in space and never actually met as a group.


Independent researcher William Randolph Lovelace II helped develop the tests for NASA's male astronauts and became curious to know how women would do taking the same tests. In 1960, Lovelace invited Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb to undergo the same rigorous challenges as the men.

Cobb, already an accomplished pilot, became the first American woman (and the only one of the Mercury 13) to undergo and pass all three phases of testing. All 13 women passed the same tests as the Mercury 7. The results were announced at a conference in Stockholm, Sweden. Lovelace and Cobb recruited more women to take the tests, financed by the world-renowned aviator Jacqueline Cochran.

Women responded after hearing about the opportunity through friends. All of the candidates were accomplished pilots. Some of them may have been recruited through the Ninety-Nines, a women pilot's organization.

This group of women that Jerrie Cobb called the Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs) accepted the challenge to be tested for a research program.

Since doctors didn't know what stresses astronauts would experience in space, tests ranged from the typical X-ray and general body physicals to the atypical, in which the women had to swallow a rubber tube so their stomach acids could be tested. Doctors tested the reflexes in the ulnar nerve of the woman's forearms using electric shock. To induce vertigo, ice water was shot into their ears, freezing the inner ear so doctors could time how quickly they recovered. The women were pushed to exhaustion using specially weighted stationary bicycles to test their respiration. They subjected themselves to many more invasive and uncomfortable tests.

In the end, thirteen women passed the same Phase I physical examinations that the Lovelace Foundation had developed as part of NASA’s astronaut selection process. Those thirteen women were:

  • Myrtle Cagle
  • Jerrie Cobb
  • Jan Dietrich[1]
  • Marion Dietrich[1]
  • Wally Funk
  • Sarah Gorelick (later Ratley)
  • Janey Hart (nee Briggs)
  • Jean Hixson
  • Rhea Hurrle (later Allison, then Woltman)
  • Gene Nora Stumbough (later Jessen)
  • Irene Leverton
  • Jerri Sloan (nee Hamilton, later Truhill)
  • Bernice Steadman (nee Trimble)

A few women took additional tests. Jerrie Cobb, Rhea Hurrle, and Wally Funk went to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma for Phase II testing, consisting of an isolation tank test and psychological evaluations. Because of other family and job commitments, not all of the women were asked to take these tests, however. Instead, once Cobb had passed the Phase III tests (advanced aeromedical examinations using military equipment and jet aircraft), the group prepared to gather in Pensacola, Florida at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine to follow suit. Two of the women quit their jobs in order to be able to attend. A few days before they were to report, however, the women received telegrams abruptly canceling the Pensacola testing. Without an official NASA request to run the tests, the Navy would not allow the use of its facilities for an unofficial project.

It is sometimes claimed that Funk also completed the third phase of testing, but the claim is misleading. Following cancellation of the tests, she found ways to continue being tested. She did complete most of the Phase III tests, but only here and there as she was able, not as part of a specific program.

Jerrie Cobb immediately flew to Washington, D.C. to try to have the testing program resumed. She and Jane Hart wrote to President John F. Kennedy and visited Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. Finally, on the 17th and 18th of July 1962, Representative Victor Anfuso (R-NY) convened public hearings before a special Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics. Significantly, the hearings investigated the possibility of gender discrimination a two full years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made that illegal, making these hearings a marker of how ideas about women's rights permeated political discourse even before they were enshrined in law. Cobb and Hart testified about the benefits of Lovelace's private project. Jacqueline Cochran largely undermined their testimony, talking about her concerns that setting up a special program to train a woman astronaut could hurt the space program. NASA representatives George Low and Astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter testified that under NASA's selection criteria women could not qualify as astronaut candidates. They correctly stated that NASA required all astronauts to be graduates of military jet test piloting programs and have engineering degrees, although John Glenn conceded that he had been assigned to NASA's Mercury Project without having earned the required college degree.[2] In 1962, women were still barred from Air Force training schools, so no American women could become test pilots of military jets. Despite the fact that several of the Mercury 13 had been employed as civilian test pilots, and many had considerably more propeller aircraft flying time than the male astronaut candidates (although not in high-performance jets, like the men), NASA refused to consider granting an equivalency for their hours in propeller airplanes.[3] Although some members of the Subcommittee were sympathetic to the women's arguments, because of this disparity in experience no action resulted.

Lovelace's privately-funded women's testing project received renewed media attention when Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963. In response, Clare Boothe Luce published an article in Life criticizing NASA and American decision makers. By including photographs of all thirteen Lovelace finalists, she made the names of all thirteen women public for the first time. (Significant media coverage had already spotlighted some of the participants, however.)

Although both Cobb and Cochran made separate appeals for years afterward to restart a women's astronaut testing project, the U.S. civil space agency did not select any female astronaut candidates until Astronaut Group 8 in 1978, which selected astronauts for the operational Space Shuttle program. Astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983 on STS-7, and Eileen Collins was the first woman to pilot the Space Shuttle during STS-63 in 1995. Collins also became the first woman to command a Space Shuttle mission during STS-93 in 1999. In 2005, she commanded NASA's return to flight mission, STS-114. At Collins' invitation, seven of the surviving Lovelace finalists attended her first launch,[4] and she has flown mementos for almost all of them.

In May 2007, the eight surviving members of the group were awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh.


  1. ^ a b Lopez, Cory (2008-06-17). "Bay Area pilot Janet Christine Dietrich dies". San Francisco Chronicle (Hearst Communications). Retrieved 2008-06-18.  
  2. ^ Martha Ackman. The Mercury Thirteen: The true story of thirteen women and the dream of space flight. Random House, New York, 2003, p. 166.
  3. ^ Stephanie Nolen. Promised the Moon: The untold story of the first women in the space race. Penguin Canada, Toronto, 2002, p. 240.
  4. ^ Funk, Wally. "The Mercury 13 Story". The Ninety-Nines. Retrieved 2009-06-12.  

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