CHICAGO – The first American astronauts captured the imaginations of a proud country nearly 50 years ago when they were selected to be part of Project Mercury the Mercury Project, the first of a series of manned spacecraft missions.
But a lesser-known group of aspiring astronauts never was given a chance to join the program for one primary reason: They were women.
On Saturday, the 13 women, all renowned aviation pilots, will be granted honorary degrees at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh for their pioneering efforts to join the space program.
The Mercury 13, as they became known, underwent a series of rigorous tests in 1961 to see whether if they would be fit for spaceflight.
The weeklong tests, developed by William Randolph Lovelace, who also had created the tests for NASA’s male astronauts, were strenuous.
“Boy, that was interesting,” said Irene Leverton, one of the participants. “We did every physical test you could think of. There were needles and all kinds of electric shocks.”
Two days before the women were to leave for actual spaceflight simulation tests at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine in Pensacola, Fla., everything was canceled. The pilots were told that NASA had chosen to discontinue the women’s program.
“People back then were dead set against women doing anything,” said Leverton, who grew up in Chicago watching air shows and air races with her parents. Leverton was 34 when she was selected to take the tests. “I remember saying, ‘Well, what else is new?’ I had gotten so much discrimination against me as a woman pilot.”
According to NASA, public hearings were held before a special subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronauts held hearings in July 1962, but no action resulted. Although the Soviet Union sent astronaut Valentina Tereshkova into space in 1963, the American space program did not launch send a single female astronaut until Sally Ride’s flight in 1983.
“The 1960s were was a different time,” recalled Stumbough Jessen. “There were some real pioneers in aviation, but NASA was a little slow to catch up.”
The push to give the women honorary degrees doctorates came from Jane Wypiszynski, a communications instructor at the university, who assigned a book to her class detailing the story of these women’s lives. She and her students were touched by their stories.
As Leverton reflected on the events that took place about a half century ago, she said she’s hopeful things will continue to improve for ambitious women looking to get into aviation or spaceflight.
“It’s changed a little now,” said Leverton, who currently resides in Prescott, Ariz. “There are more women in aviation doing various kinds of flying jobs.”