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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Women in Space pt. 1: The Mercury 13 (book review)

At her 89th birthday celebration, my amazing friend Whitie told a story of the time she and her partner Louise were working on Jackie Cochran's ranch and Eisenhower paid a visit (Whitie tells this story elsewhere; I'm hoping she'll collect her stories in her own blog, as she is a fabulous journalist.) If you're not familiar with the name,  Jacqueline Cochran was a great aviator and, for a generation of women flyers, a mentor and inspiration. At right, a book about her, but this isn't the one I'm reviewing here; I just liked the image. Anyway, this reminded me of the great story of the secret "girl astronaut" program in which Cochran had played a part, though ultimately not so happy a part, unfortunately. After I got back home I looked the story up to refresh my memory, and found my old review...

A few years ago two books came out on the same subject, in one of those odd publishing coincidences. Luckily for me I got to review what most readers agree is the better of the two. This was an amazing story, a hidden part of our space program history, and a kind of microcosm of our society in which women were excluded from full participation. Yet even in this limited, clandestine form of participation in a sidelined government program, the presence of women led to huge advances in medicine, as it was the first time women's biology was really studied on its own merits rather than as an imperfect subset of male biology (a cultural bias still largely in place, as we "girl Aspies" know too well). And that was just one of the side effects of the sadly (and outrageously, and unjustifiably) curtailed project.

The story itself is fascinating, a reading adventure on a par, in my mind, with Robert Zubrin's fabulous nonfiction Mars on Earth. Truth really does trump fiction, when the story is well told. For more background, here's an NPR story you can listen to... A CBS news story from 2007 about a graduating class honoring the women... a website dedicated to the women (graphic patch at right - I love that) ...

Happening upon so many Internet references, I'm glad to see how the story continues to be told because it's one that really catches the imagination; it unveils something important that was for decades hidden in plain sight and provides the kinds of insights that throw everything we thought we knew into a new perspective.

The story's timeless and I'd recommend it to anyone, but especially to anyone who has forgotten, or doesn't know, what this country was like for women not so long ago. For women still living in places where they're as stifled as the Mercury 13, and those who want to help change their lot, it's a lesson in how much a society can gain by liberating women and adding their talents to the mix. For us, it's a reminder that we still aren't that far removed from the dark ages, and still have a very long way to go. And it's a good example, sadly, of how one woman can sabotage other women's progress in order to further her own agenda - something I'm sure happens among all oppressed groups.

In that larger context, it's the story of thirteen heroes in an epic struggle against overwhelming odds - and of a tiny minority of principled people who didn't have to champion them, but did, because it was the right thing to do both morally and scientifically. Though they were all silenced, they were triumphant in their time, and their story was too big to be hidden forever. Here's the brief review I wrote for SLJ at the time

 The Mercury 13: The True Story of 13 Women and the Dream of Space Flight (2003) by Martha Ackmann
Adult/High School-In the early days of the space race, women were barred from U.S. astronaut training, but some questioned the wisdom of this policy. At the Lovelace Foundation, in a secret "girl astronaut program," a select group of female pilots underwent the same comprehensive battery of psychological and physical tests required of male candidates.

Now known as the Mercury 13, these women had many aviation honors, interesting lives, and (as shown in several well-chosen black-and-white photographs) great charm. Most made crushing sacrifices to prove they had "the will, the ability and the courage" to fly in space but, despite their resounding success, received no recognition.

This account finds dramatic structure in the divergent personal and political paths of two of the century's greatest female pilots, Jerrie Cobb and Jackie Cochran. Cobb, the first to be chosen for testing, helped pick subsequent participants and ultimately became a champion of their cause in the political arena. The older and more influential Cochran had opened doors to female pilots in the past, but effectively opposed female participation in the space program. Once the battle was lost in Congress, it was another 40 years before a woman finally commanded a space flight.

Mercury 13 is both an outstanding work of research and an exceptionally readable and well-told story. Readers will gain new perspectives on space, medicine, women, and American culture, and will appreciate the magnitude of what was lost when the women were grounded.