"Mercury 13" Story by Wally Funk
In a pueblo-style building in Southeast Albuquerque, a group of Lovelace Clinic aviation medicine experts put 31 astronaut candidates through a week of medical tests, chiefly involving being poked, prodded and given every test known to medical science. Thus the beginning of The Mercury Seven. In this year of 1959, America saw the greatest male heroes of modern life even before they flew in space.
Dr. R. Lovelace helped NASA draw up their profile of the perfect astronaut, based on years of medical testing experience of pilots. Again in 1959, Dr. Lovelace was in Miami, Florida attending an Aviation Convention, when he and Air Force Brigadier General Donald Flickinger wondered how women would handle the new frontier of space, if they were given a chance. General Flickinger had knowledge of the Russians preparing a non-pilot woman to be put into space and knew America had to act quickly if we wanted to launch a woman into space first. At this same Aviation Convention, Dr. Lovelace and General Flickinger met Aero Commander's first woman pilot, Jerrie Cobb. Impressed by Jerrie's experience and credentials, Jerrie was selected to be the first American woman to take the astronaut tests.
February 1960, Jerrie reported to the Lovelace Clinic under strict secrecy. She took all the Mercury Seven tests and did very well in the final analysis. These tests were called Phase I. Long time friend of Dr. Lovelace was famed aviatrix Jackie Cochran who generously supported the financial needs for the forth coming women to take Phase I. Lists were made of eligible women to participate in the Mercury Program from FAA records in Washington D.C. and The Ninety-Nines. Twenty-five women were contacted. The women were to be under 35 years of age, in good health, hold a second class medical, four year college education, a commercial rating or better and have over 2,000 hours of flying time. Jerrie Cobb helped in the selection, and if it had not been for Jerrie, the Mercury 13 would have never made it on paper much less into the testing phases.
Between February 1961 and that summer, 12 women aviators were test candidates sworn to secrecy to become the Mercury 13. Their names are: 'K' Cagle, Jerrie Cobb, Jan Dietrich, Marion Dietrich*, Wally Funk, Jane Hart, Jean Hixson*, Gene Nora Jessen, Irene Leverton, Sarah Ratley, 'B' Steadman, Jerri Truhill and Rhea Woltman. (*Deceased). Cobb, Funk and Woltman went on to take Phase II, Cobb and Funk completed Phase III. In spite of each woman's outstanding test results, these talented women would never get a chance to fly into space.
Thirty four years later, seven of the Mercury 13 witnessed America's first woman pilot astronaut, Lt. Col. Eileen Collins launch at Cape Kennedy on February 3, 1995. Lt. Col. Collins was the pilot on STS-63 Discovery.
Not all the Mercury 13 candidates knew each other all those years. However in 1994, ten of the Mercury 13 met for the first time. Dateline NBC told their story on February 10, 1995.
Additional information reference: "Life", Aug. 29, 1960, "Life" Oct. 24, 1960, "Life" June 28, 1963, "MS" Magazine Sept., 1973, "Ladybirds I and II". Hundreds of new papers, books and films have been made about the Mercury 13, but it never made the front page.
Contributing 99, Wally Funk