The Mercury 13 tells the (to me, completely unknown) story of thirteen women who, in the very early sixties, went through the initial screening program for astronauts, passed the tests with flying (ha!) colors, and were then summarily dismissed when the decision was made to use only military jet pilots, that is, men. The book is written in a rather dull and occasionally annoyingly detailed journalistic style but the story is fascinating. Here are women who were incredibly accomplished: many had thousands of flying hours, many more than the men who were chosen to be the first astronauts; they ran businesses, including air freight; they were engineers and journalists. And most trained very hard to pass the tests, including some puzzling ones such as the isolation tank, in which candidates had to float in a tank with no sensory input for hours. This has the lovely effect of inducing schizophrenic hallucinations — but not, apparently, in these hardy women who were able to stay in the tank until the hungry experimenters finally had to pull them out so they could go have their dinners.
The story is a vivid reminder of the sexist climate of the sixties, where congressmen (and they were all men) thought nothing of speaking on the record about the inherent incapability of women to function during their periods — or at all, actually. Since African-American and Asian-Americans were also excluded from the space program at that time women were in good company.
The author makes a concerted effort to point out how much better the women were than the male candidates: more flying experience, more time in the tank, more everything, and that’s ok, to a point, but she seems unaware that the very fact there were only thirteen of them meant that a serious self-selection had occurred beforehand. It reminded me of the first year when women were allowed to compete for Polytechnique, France’s best Engineering school, and it turned out that the “major” [valedictorian — Polytechnique has a military pedigree] was a woman, Anne Chopinet. I remember staring at her picture with longing (although not for that awful hat the school uses) and suspecting that she had been an overachiever since birth. I just checked and she apparently has five children, so over-achiever all around… A few exceptional women don’t signal that all women are better than the men — although they certainly prove that discrimination is silly. Another interesting tidbit the author fails to comment on is that, although the thirteen women came from a variety of backgrounds, it’s startling to read how many were daughters or wives (or both) of upper-class men: I guess money can be liberating.
Interesting story, well worth reading.