Their Story as Pilots
“Even before we… had reached 300 feet, I recognized that the sky would become my home. I tumbled out of the airplane with stars in my eyes.”
This is a quote by Jerrie Cobb; one of the 13 pilots who were part of the Mercury 13 female astronaut program. These women were pilots in the late 50s and 60s who fought social norms to become pilots and potential astronauts in a male-dominated field. Each of these brave and independent women have their own unique and inspiring story as documented in Mercury 13 a Netflix documentary.
Each woman started out flying planes. A pilot named Jackie Cochran set records as she led the WASP Program (Woman Airforce Service Pilots), which was the first time women flew military planes. During WWII they flew planes direct from the factories to the male pilots taking them into war.
The WASP program was instrumental in proving that women could fly fighter jet planes as well as the men, often flying jets with the same or less training than the men and with the same or better safety records. After WWII, they became mentors and created the Powder Puff Derby, where many women broke world records.
The Space Race
The Space Race began in 1957, when NASA was created. The qualifications for being an astronaut at the time were: be a graduate of an air force academy, have over 1500 hours of flight time, have engineering experience, and be under 5’ 11” and 180 pounds.
Mercury 13 Testing
Dr. Loveless was one of the key doctors in charge of picking NASA’s first astronaut. Through his friendship with Jackie Cochran and experience with female pilots, he believed that women should have a role in space exploration. He started recruiting women for testing in February of 1960 on his own, outside the contract he had with NASA. In the first wave of testing they were subjected to 5 days of invasive physical tests; 13 women passed.
The second wave of testing was psychological, where the women candidates far surpassed their male counterparts. The female candidates felt at peace, while many of the men tested hallucinated and experienced panic attacks. Jerrie Cobb set the record by laying in a sensory deprivation tank for over 9 hours. Right before they were set to go into the last round of testing, flight, NASA ordered the program to be stopped, deciding that exploring space was for men only.
While in June of 1963, Valentina Tereshkova, a Russian, became the first female in space, it wasn’t until 1995 that Eileen Collins became the first female U.S. pilot to space. Collins invited the Mercury 13 women to come to see her take off. Before going up into the space shuttle she grabbed the microphone and gave tribute to those women. She said she wouldn’t be where she was that day without the hard work and fight the Mercury 13 women gave.
Mercury 13 in the Classroom
Documentaries like Mercury 13 are not only a great way to get your female students excited about STEM careers, but also show how prejudice can eliminate opportunities regardless of ability. For a 15-minute shortened version of the Mercury 13 story there is a TED Talk on YouTube. For tips to get your students interested in STEM, visit our blog. For ways to help students interested in STEM programs combat math anxiety check out our brand new course.
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Walsh, Heather & Sington, David. Netflix Official Site, Mercury 13, 20 Apr. 2018.