Moving forward by looking back

Posted by Francis Reddy
on Tuesday, May 8, 2007
Former astronaut Wally Schirra died May 3 at the age of 84. He was one of NASA's "Original Seven," the first crop of astronauts selected in April 1959, and the fifth man in space.

Schirra was the only astronaut to fly in all three of the U.S. space agency's pre-shuttle programs. His Mercury 8, Gemini 6, and Apollo 7 missions all were technically perfect flights. Consider: Schirra's first flight lasted 9 hours; his final one, just 6 years later, carried three times the crew and lasted 29 times longer. 

Schirra never had kind words for the extensive medical testing NASA mandated for astronaut candidates at New Mexico's Lovelace Clinic. "I still feel that the physical exams at Lovelace were an embarrassment, a degrading experience," he wrote in his book Schirra's Space. "I have said many times — and meant it — that it was a case of sick doctors working on well patients."

But a less-famous crop of pilots passed the same invasive and unpleasant tests, and on Saturday, May 12, the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh will award all of them honorary doctorates.

In 1960, Dr. William Randolph Lovelace II and U.S. Air Force Brig. General Donald Flickinger wondered how well women would fare in spaceflight. They asked record-setting pilot Geraldyn "Jerrie" Cobb — who, with 10,000 flight hours, had double the time of John Glenn — to undergo the physical testing regimen Lovelace had developed for astronauts. This led to an expanded, privately-funded, but ultimately short-lived project in which women were tested for fitness as astronauts.

Thirteen women, including Cobb, made the final cut and prepared to undergo advanced training with jet aircraft in Pensacola, Florida. Two even quit their jobs. But a few days before training was to begin, the women received telegrams abruptly canceling it.

"I think we all wanted to punch somebody," Beatrice "B" Steadman, 80, one of the 13, told the Associated Press.

Nothing came of appeals to revive the program, even after the Soviets orbited Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, in 1963.

Martha Ackmann tells the tale in her 2003 book The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight. Jane Wypiszynski, a communications instructor at UW-Oshkosh, assigned the book to her freshman students. She suggested the school award the Lovelace finalists with honorary doctorates. (Lots more here.)

In 1983, astronaut Sally Ride flew aboard STS-7 to become the first American woman in space. Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot the space shuttle on STS-63 in 1995, and 4 years later became the first woman to command a space shuttle mission (STS-93).

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