The Mercury 13: What Might Have Been
In 1961, Kansas City’s Sarah Ratley was so close to being a female astronaut she could taste it. Then, prejudice grounded the program — but not Ratley’s ambition.
Ask Sarah Gorelick Ratley to describe the joy of flying a plane, and she’ll say, “It’s the freedom to get the proper perspective on life, to see the beautiful blue sky and the earth below.”
Ratley was born in 1933, a time when women were expected to excel in the kitchen, not the cockpit. Despite this, she became a skilled pilot with an impressive resume. She flew with the Women Air Service Pilots and the Ninety-Nines, an organization for licensed women pilots. She earned degrees in mathematics, physics, chemistry and aeronautics. She worked for AT&T as an electrical engineer. And in 1961, she became one of the Mercury 13 — the 13 women chosen to go into space.
Ratley became a pilot when she was in high school. She had wanted very badly to be in the Wyandotte High School Pep Club, “but getting into Pep Club was a popularity contest that I didn’t win,” she says. “So I went to a Civilian Air Patrol meeting instead.”
She joined CAPs and took flying lessons with an army reserve pilot at Fairfax Municipal Airport in Kansas City, Kansas. “It only cost me $6 an hour,” she says. “I actually learned how to fly before I could drive.”
Her father fully supported her. He believed women were as capable as men. “He just told me to keep both hands on the wheel and my eyes on the sky,” Ratley says.
Her mother died before Ratley graduated from high school in 1951, and with her inheritance, she bought her first plane, a Cessna 120.
Soon, she started flying with the Women Air Service Pilots, which had ferried and tested airplanes during WWII so men could go into combat. When she was only 18, she flew solo into Washington, D.C., strictly dead reckoning (which means with only the voice of a fellow WASP pilot to guide her).
Ratley went to the University of Denver for its aviation program and was often the only woman in her STEM classes. She helped pay for college by giving flying lessons.
After graduating, she went to work for AT&T. She also enjoyed air racing and touring with the Ninety-Nines, an international organization named for the 99 women who attended Amelia Earhart’s first meeting of female pilots.
Then on April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union put the first man into space, sending shock waves through American aviation. William Randolph Lovelace II, who helped NASA select the Mercury 7 astronauts in 1959, guessed the Soviets also planned to put the first woman into space. Women weighed less than men and used less oxygen, which was a significant technical advantage.
As chairman of the NASA Special Advisory Committee on Life Science, Lovelace had helped develop rigorous mental and physical tests for male astronauts. In 1960, he asked accomplished pilot Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb to undergo the same tests the male astronauts had taken. She scored in the top 2 percent, and he began looking for other female candidates to undergo testing at his privately funded clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The candidates had to be physically fit and have at least 1000 hours of flying time. Only 19 were selected for the testing. Ratley received a call from Lovelace on a Friday and arrived in Albuquerque on a Monday.
“They shot ice water into our ears to induce vertigo,” Ratley says matter-of-factly. “But the trick was to keep your eyes focused on the red spot on the wall.”
The candidates were also subjected to sensory deprivation tests in which they would be submerged in tepid water or placed in a small metal chamber where no sound or light could penetrate. Some pilots, both men and women, could not stand the claustrophobic setting and flipped what Ratley calls the “chicken switch.”
“I decided to take a nap,” Ratley says, her eyes twinkling.
Testing also included riding stationary bikes to the point of exhaustion, swallowing rubber tubing so that stomach acid could be examined and undergoing electric shocks to the ulnar nerve of pilot’s forearms to test their reflexes.
“But we were young and full of ambition,” Ratley says, “and we went out every night.”
Most of the women were single; however, one of the pilots, Janey Hart, was married and had eight children. Ratley remembers Hart saying, “With eight kids, you’d want to go to the moon too!”
Of the 19 candidates, only 13 passed. Lovelace, whom Ratley remembers as being especially kind, personally congratulated her.
She quit her job with AT&T to undergo advanced aeromedical examinations using military equipment and jet aircraft at the Pensacola Naval School of Aviation Medicine. However, in September of 1961, she and the other women received telegrams that the testing had been cancelled.
Ratley knew of the military’s intense resistance to female astronauts. “’One pretty little woman in the cockpit,’ they’d say, ‘and there goes all the attention,’” Ratley says.
Former President Lyndon Johnson agreed, writing, “Let’s stop this now.”
“And so,” Ratley says, “we just went on with our lives.” She married, had a daughter, bought an antique shop in Westport and eventually became an accountant for the IRS.
Ratley remembers feeling both excitement and disappointment when Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space on June 16, 1963. “I was happy for Valentina,” Ratley says, “but I wish the first woman in space had been American.”
That same year, Clare Boothe Luce published an article in Life Magazine that showcased the Mercury 13 and criticized those who had kept the women from going into space. Then, in 1964, the Civil Rights Act made discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender or national origin illegal.
“The plane doesn’t care who is in the cockpit,” Ratley says. “Look at people’s attributes, what they have to offer. Not their sex, their religion, their background. It’s what inside that counts, not the packaging.”
When the first female astronaut candidates were selected in 1978, Ratley says, “we were happy for them. We wanted a woman to be in that left seat. They stood on our shoulders, just as we stood on the shoulders of the WASP.”
Colonel Eileen Collins, the first female commander of a space shuttle, invited Ratley and six of the other Mercury 13 women to her first launch.
“The women astronauts have been very kind to us,” Ratley says. “Sally Ride, Eileen Collins and Rhea Seddon adopted us as their own. And now NASA treats us like royalty.”
Although Ratley describes aviation as being very liberal, she encountered serious resistance when she decided to learn how to fly a helicopter. Rotor was the last male bastion, she explained, “but I just bought the helicopter and went on my merry way.”
Countless articles and five books have been written about the Mercury 13. (”We say that we have lead poisoning because we’ve been in print so often,” Ratley says.) Three years ago, the Irish company Fine Point Films produced “Mercury 13,” a documentary currently showing on Netflix. Ratley has also heard that a movie is being discussed.
Over the years, the women of Mercury 13 became as close as sisters. “We were like a sorority,” Ratley says. “Gene Nora Jessen and I still call each other almost every week.”
They are often asked to be keynote speakers. “But with the aviation groups,” Ratley says jokingly, “I just tell them to show the documentary.”
Sadly, for late Mercury 13 members “B” Steadman, Janey Hart, Jean Hixson, Jerrie Truhill, and Janet and Marion Dietrich, the new round of publicity has come too late.
As for the remaining members, Ratley says — Jerrie Cobb, Rhea Woltman, Myrtle Cagle, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Jessen, and Wally Funk — “We still dream of what might have been.”