Critical Acclaim for The Mercury 13
A small newspaper article buried on page 19 of my local newspaper provided the spark for The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight.
The article described the upcoming 1998 return to space for veteran astronaut John Glenn and several paragraphs down, a single sentence caught my eye. “While John Glenn will be enjoying his second space flight,” the story read, “famed woman pilot, Jerrie Cobb, has been waiting since 1961 for her chance to orbit.”
“Who’s Jerrie Cobb?” I wondered. “And why don’t I know anything about her?”
Those two questions propelled me to begin researching the fascinating and little known story of thirteen crackerjack pilots who hoped to become America’s first women in space.
The topic was already in my blood, having grown up during a time and in a place that was thoroughly immersed in the drama of the space race. In St. Louis during the 1960s, nearly every father on my block worked with McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft helping build the Mercury space capsule—the craft that would launch Alan Shepard, John Glenn and all of the other Mercury astronauts into outer space.
My own father had been in the Army Air Corps in World War II and a crew member on a B-26. Everyone in my family shared my dad’s love of flight; we spent many nights parked in our Chevrolet watching jets take off and land from the St. Louis airport. Later my father would be part of a team of cartographers that would help design maps for Apollo flights to the moon. Space and airplanes were as much a part of my St. Louis childhood as riverboats, ice cream and Cardinal baseball.
So with the page 19 newspaper article in-hand, I set out to find Jerrie Cobb and to recover the forgotten story of America’s women astronaut pioneers. What I discovered was a story far more dramatic and enduring than I ever could have imagined. Here’s the gist.
In 1961, just as NASA launched its first man into space, a group of thirteen extraordinary women pilots underwent secret astronaut testing. They passed the same battery of tests as did the famed Mercury 7 astronauts. But at the eleventh hour--just as the women were to begin the final phase of testing--NASA pulled the plug and abruptly stopped the secret project. Some said the women had scored too well on the grueling tests and posed a threat to the astronaut program. Others feared that if women were allowed to become astronauts, they might demand to do other jobs as well.
Even though NASA cancelled the program, the Mercury 13 women did not go home quietly and instead took their case to Capitol Hill--even the White House. Yet no matter how passionate their plea, the response was the same: space is no place for a woman. The Soviets apparently didn’t agree. The USSR sent its first woman into space in 1963; the United States did not follow suit for another twenty years.
The Mercury 13 tells the story of the events surrounding these thirteen dynamic women who sometimes sacrificed jobs and marriages for a chance to participate in America’s space race against the Soviet Union. Their struggle paved the way for today’s women astronauts and helped open doors for all women in jobs that some see as unconventional, improper or dangerous.
While the thirteen women trailblazers never got a chance to fly—at least not yet—their story deserves to be recovered from the lost pages of American history. I hope my book brings to life the women’s determination, resilience and indomitable spirit. And I hope it shows just how far women will go to pursue their dreams--even ones that are out-of-this-world.