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In The Mercury 13, journalist and Mount Holyoke College professor Martha Ackmann serves up a fascinating account of the efforts by women to become astronauts in the early days of the U.S. space program. With NASA and other government officials firmly ensconced in the good ol' boys club, there was never any doubt that the trainees for the initial Mercury space-flight missions would be exclusively men. Yet, as Ackmann shows, a staunch and able group of females, led by ace test pilot Jerrie Cobb, underwent the same physical and mental testing as later heroes Alan B. Shepard and John Glenn and might well have been excellent astronauts.
Truth to tell, there were certain physical characteristicsfor example, lower body weightthat led NASA executives Dr. Randy Lovelace and Air Force Brigadier General Donald Flickinger to believe that females might offer some advantages over their male counterparts. Eventually, 13 women emerged as frontline candidates for Mercury missions. On a wing and a prayer, they soldiered on, hoping that NASA's powerful all-male hierarchy would see their value to the program. But Vice President Lyndon Johnson, then the titular head of NASA, nipped these dreams in the bud. Not even a series of congressional hearings on the topic could sway the men in power.
Ackmann provides interesting details on the lives of the would-be female astronauts and their battle to win a chance at making history. Besides being an excellent volume in the category of women's studies, The Mercury 13 also serves to fill a critical gap in the history of NASA and (wo)manned space flight. A foreword is provided by ABC News correspondent Lynn Sherr, who was a semi-finalist in the now-defunct journalist-in-space competition.